Rinderpest and the Panspermatists

Theories of the Origin of Diseases
  • C. A. Spinage


Belief that organisms were generated spontaneously derived from the ancient Greeks, a writer in the Hippocratic corpus (c. 300–200 bc) maintaining that all diseases were caused by the air (Jones, 1923), and Aristotle before this (384–322 bc) asserting that fleas and mosquitoes originated in putrefying matter. Allied to these beliefs was the doctrine of Anaxagoras (c.500 to c.428 bc) and Democritus (470 bc to 380 bc) that the elements were a mixture of the seeds of all things. This latter doctrine became the theory of panspermism, that the atmosphere was fall of minute germs which developed upon finding a favorable environment. By the 18th century, these beliefs were still well founded among medical men and naturalists, to whom diseases arose spontaneously from miasmata, poisonous vapors which emanated from the earth and then became contagious, spreading in the air. But the discovery of the Acarus of scabies and other infestations in the second half of the 17th century was to provide the alternative doctrine of contagium vivum, that epizootic or epidemic diseases were caused by living organisms. This led to the “germ theory,” described as the hypothesis that no life has ever been evolved (except in the remotest periods of the earth’s history) otherwise than from a living parent or a living germ, as opposed to the spontaneous generation theory that life sprung de novo from molecular arrangements of the atoms of dead organic materials (quoted by Romano, 1997). The rinderpest outbreak in Britain in the 1860s focused attention on these theories which overlapped in the controversy which followed. Darwin’s hypothesis of pangenesis, whereby every cell of an organism reproduced itself by contributing its share to the germ or bud of the future offspring (Darwin, 1871), led to a coining of the term pangermism, pangermists correctly maintaining that the germs of contagia resulted from preexisting germs. But this hypothesis, Brown asserted, was as unsustainable as it was undemonstrable (Brown, 1884). The term had but a short life because, by now, the understanding of contagious diseases was reaching fruition, yet long after the debate had ostensibly closed in the 1870s and bacteriology was a well-established field of research in Britain, in the early 1890s there was still no consensus of opinion that infectious diseases were caused simply by the action of parasitic microorganisms (Romano, 1997).


Contagious Disease Epidemic Disease Spontaneous Generation Veterinary College Germ Theory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. A. Spinage

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations