The 19th-Century Crank Who Tried to Tell Us About the Microbiome

The 19th-Century Crank Who Tried to Tell Us About the Microbiome

WIRED/Getty Images

Science, we are told, advances one funeral at a time1, but sometimes it progresses through resurrections.

The French chemist Antoine Béchamp (1816–1908) was a life-long rival to the great microbiologist Louis Pasteur. Pasteur invented pasteurization and vaccines for rabies and anthrax and discovered that many diseases are caused by invisible germs. Béchamp was a bitter crank who argued that microbes became dangerous when the health of the host—its “terrain” or environment—deteriorated. Béchamp was comprehensively wrong: Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, which describes how sicknesses are caused by bacterial infections (as well as by viruses that invade our cells), or else by genetics, aging, and accidents, is supported by evolutionary theory and all the observations of modern medicine. Today, Béchamp is invoked only by anti-vaxxers and disciples of alternative medicine who believe that food is medicine…