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JAMA 100 Years Ago
January 11, 2006


Author Affiliations

JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA. 2006;295(2):226. doi:10.1001/jama.295.2.226

The doctrine of the transmutation of species, of the conversion of one kind of organism into another, has always had and doubtless will long continue to have a fascination for a certain class of minds. At one time some naturalists saw nothing improbable in the metamorphosis of barnacles into geese or even of the trunks of trees into large animals. As regards lesser forms of life the doctrine of heterogenesis was almost a universally accepted scientific belief. In the early days of bacteriology the notion of transformation among such exceedingly minute organisms as bacteria found, as was natural, many adherents, and the half-understood facts and but slightly trammeled fancies put forward by Bechamp, Billroth, Naegeli and others left an indelible mark on the young science. In recent years the veteran Bastian has continued to advocate the spontaneous generation of micro-organisms out of non-living matter, and it was but yesterday that the “radiobe” was welcomed with easy credulity. DeVries' theory of mutation has seemed to some to afford support to the doctrine of transformation, although such an interpretation appears to us to be based on a misunderstanding of the nature and scope of mutations. On the whole, it is not surprising that instances of the change of one bacterial species into another should be brought confidently forward from time to time for confirmation. The view once held by a certain school of French bacteriologists regarding the transformation of B. coli into B. typhosus has, to be sure, been virtually abandoned, but belief in the fluctuating character of the species in the colon typhoid group is still active.