Little is known of Henry Charlton Bastian's early life except that the boy showed great interest in natural history. In 1856 he entered University College, London and graduated M.B from London University in 1961. At first he worked at St. Mary's Hospital, London as assistant physician and lecturer on pathology. He received his M.D. in 1866 and already the next year, only thirty years old, returned to his alma mater as professor of pathological anatomy. At the time the distinguished Sir J. Russell Reynolds held sway in the teaching of neurology at the University College. William Richard Gowers (1845-1915), eight years Bastian’s junior, was also at the University College, just having qualified in medicine by taking his M.R.C.S. (1867).
He continued to practice clinical medicine, and in 1878 was promoted to physician to University College Hospital. From 1887 to 1898 Bastian held the chair of the principles and practice of medicine and also had an appointment at the National Hospital in Queen Square, London, from 1868 to 1902. Early in his career he worked on the problem of abiogenesis, or spontaneous generation, and the return of this interest determined his premature retirement from clinical neurology.
Bastian married Julia Orme in 1866, and had three sons and a daughter. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1868, at the age of thirty-one; served as sensor of the Royal College pf Physicians of London from 1897 to 1898; and received honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and honorary M.D. from the Royal University of Ireland. From 1884 to 1898 Bastian was Crown referee in cases of supposed insanity, and a few months before he died, he was awarded a Civil List pension of pounds 150 a year in recognition of his services to science.
He is said to have been a close friend of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), but the philosopher makes only very slight reference to Bastian in his lengthy autobiography. As one of Spencer's executors, Bastian helped to publish the latter's work.
Bastian's earliest scientific work was with guinea worms and other nematodes, but his investigations ended suddenly when he developed a strange allergy to these creatures. His clear analytical mind, sound reasoning, and acute powers of observations drew him to clinical neurology, and he spent the rest of his hospital and academic life in this discipline.
Beginning in 1868, he published a series of papers on speech disorders. He described a visual and an auditory word centre, and in 1869 he gave the first account of word blindness (alexia) and of word deafness, which is known today as "Wernicke's aphasia".
Bastian's anatomical skill is revealed by the discovery in 1867 of the anterior spinocerebellar tract of the spinal cord - now known, however, as "Gower's tract" because of the more detailed investigations of it made by Gowers in 1880. In 1890 he showed for the first time that complete section of the upper spinal cord abolishes reflexes and muscular tone below the level of the lesion; this has been known occasionally as Bastian's law.
Bastian himself claimed that his studies on abiogenesis were more significant; and there were two periods of activity in this field, approximately 1868-1878 and 1900-1915. Contrary to accepted biological and bacteriological opinion, he believed that there was no strict boundary between organic and inorganic life. He denied the doctrine of omne vivum ex ovo and argued that since living matter must have arisen from nonliving matter at an early stage in evolution, such a process could still be taking place.
His battle was fought mostly alone; and eventually he was the last scientific opponent of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), John Tyndall (1820-1893), Robert Koch (1843-1910), and the other pioneers of bacteriology. This was an important role, for he pointed out many of their mistakes; and thus, in a negative way and quite against his purpose, he helped to advance the germ theory of fermentation and of disease. As Pasteur's main opponent, he was responsible for the development of some of the techniques that advanced bacteriology.
Thus, Bastian denied that boiling destroys all bacteria, as Pasteur claimed, and thereby opened the way for the discovery of heat-resistant spores. On the whole, his criticisms of Pasteur's logic were more effective than the multitude of experiments he cunningly conceived and carried out, for the techniques he used are now known to have been frequently defective. His views and supporting experimental data were set forth in a large book of over 1.100 pages, The Beginning of Life (1872). Concerning the role of bacteria in fermentation, he concluded, "These lowest organisms are, in fact, to be regarded as occasional concomitant products rather than invariable or necessary causes of all fermentative changes." A controversy with Tyndall concerning the existence of airborne germs closed his first period of interest in bacteriology.
Bastian returned to his biological studies in 1900 and devoted the last fifteen years of his life to the fundamental problems of the origin of life. He was the last scientific believer in spontaneous generation, for he succeeded in converting no one to his cause. Bastian thought that abiogenesis included "archebiosis", living things arising from inorganic matter, or from dead animal or plant tissues, through new molecular combinations, and "heterogenesis", the interchangeability of the lowest forms of animal and vegetable life, both among themselves and with each other, thus ciliates and flagellae could arise from amoebae.
The Modes of Origin of Lowest Organisms.
The beginnings of life. 2 volumes. London, 1872.
On Paralysis From Brain Disease in Its Common Forms.
The Brain as an Organ of Mind.
London, 1880. 32: New York, Appleton, 1880.
Paralyses, Cerebral, Bulbar and Spinal. London 1886.
The "muscular sense”; its nature and cortical localisation.
Brain, London, 1888, 10: 1-137.
Various Forms of Hysterical and Functional Paralysis.
A Treatise on Aphasia and Other Speech Defects.
London, Lewis, 1898.
Studies in Heterogenesis.
4 parts, London 1901-1903. Together 1904.
The Nature and Origin of Living Matter. London 1905.
The Evolution of Life. London, Methuen, 1907.
The Origin of Life. London, 1911, 1913.
On the symptomatology of total transverse lesions of the spinal cord; with special reference to the conditions of the various reflexes.
Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, London, 1890, 73: 151-217.
Lancet, London, 1915, 2: 1220-1224 (unsigned; with bibliography).
British Medical Journal, 1915, 2: 795-796 (unsigned).
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