Professor Bommsenn’s Germs

Professor Bommsenn’s Germs

August 7, 2009 10:06 pm 0 comments

The short story, “Professor Bommsenn’s Germs” by Ernest George Harmer first appeared in the November 1887 edition of Belgravia Magazine.

Harmer describes a bald, large headed creature with a small body and “mesmeric” powers. It is perhaps the earliest piece of fiction to feature the mutant motif. Following is the Google Books digitization of the story.

Professor Bommsenn’s Germs
by Ernest George Harmer

Carl Ferdinand Bommsenn, Ph.D., Professor of Comparative Embryology in the University of Brevik, sat in his study chair, lost in meditation. The wrinkles on his fair Teuton brow deepened, as there fled through his brain, in all its mysterious complexity, a Great Idea. Presently his face grew calmer, and he turned quickly to touch the bell which hung in a handy nook by the fireside. His demonstrator appeared.

‘Pack.’

‘Yes, professor. What shall I -’

‘Shirt, boots, trousers, microscope, notebook, gun.’

‘And -’

‘Nothing else.’

The demonstrator seemed to be at a loss. Was it a lecture at Bergen the Herr Professor was going to, he wondered, or a tramp over the Dovrefeld in search of recreation. He asked the question.

‘Siam. We start to-morrow. Lock the laboratory door and bring the key with you. Leave me. I must prepare.’

Straussheim stared with all his might. ‘ You say ” we,” professor. May I ask who ? ‘

‘You and I. One portmanteau between us. Call me at five.’

The young biologist was not unused to the vagaries of his master, but he had never received so startling a communication as that which Professor Bommsenn had just made so curtly. He was inured to unexpected journeys, conceived on the spur of the moment, to Trondhjem, or the Isefjord, or even the Black Forest. But Siam! What would become of the lectures for the rest of the term ? How could they possibly leave the experiments which had taken them three months to prepare, and which were just beginning to ripen? And, above all, what would Gretchen say?

It was no use grumbling, however, and wondering what the professor was about. The student’s reverence for the scholarship of his master was so profound that he never dreamed of fighting against any of his wishes. Was it not he who had worked out the embryonic history of the bluebottle? Who would not feel proud to follow such a man to the ends of the universe—nay, even to Siam itself!

The next morning the professor and his assistant walked down to the quay, and took the steamboat for Hamburg. There they took the overland express for Marseilles, which they reached just in time to catch the outgoing mail. A sharp run of twenty-eight days, and the ‘ Peiho’ steamed gaily into the harbour of Singapore. At this port they found a steamship just about to start for Saigon, on reaching which they embarked, after some delay, on board a native flat-bottomed boat manned by coolies, and in this they ascended the Mekong as far as the rapids. At this point they landed, and sat down on the bank, with their portmanteau between them, the contents of which they proceeded to transfer to two knapsacks.

Straussheim ventured to speak. ‘I have not been able as yet, professor, to divine the motif of our journey, and I should be proud to become your confidant in this matter, in a due measure. Our scanty baggage would seem to indicate that your intentions will not involve a long sojourn in this country.’

‘Possibly. I wish to visit the great elephant cemetery which, according to the report of the earlier Jesuit travellers, is to be found in the northern Shan states. It has occurred to me that an inspection of this collection of bones should be of value in working out the life-history of the Pachydermata. I also cherish the hope of meeting with a nursery of immature specimens of Elephas, the study of which in their native environment will doubtless modify the prevalent attitude of science towards this problem.’

‘I thank you, professor. May I inquire, however, whence our supplies are to be drawn when we are beyond the reach of men?’

‘There is a teak forest to the north. Let us go and choose our camping place for the night. When the proper moment arrives, I will explain.’

II.

Just as the sun, six months later, was marching with hasty strides down the steep hill of day, the two travellers reached an opening in the forest through which the fast-vanishing daylight penetrated. It was a wide glade, filled up with tanglegrowth, having been formed by the fall and gradual decay of a great teak trunk. Pulling down the rich pendulous herbage which clothed the broken root, they cleared a nook into which they crept, and arranged their slender baggage comfortably. They had found fruits enough during their day’s march to make an excellent supper, and they now sat down to partake of it before lying down to sleep. One of them was to take a spell of watching while the other rested, and the first turn fell to Straussheim, who lit his long briar root and folded his arms with the intention of taking his ease. Before reclining for the night, he took the opportunity of reminding the professor of a promise he had made that morning to explain the ground of his steadfast confidence in their future.

‘Ah! it is very simple. You see this match-box.’ And the biologist drew from his pocket a common Swedish safety matchbox. ‘This box is filled with primordial germs.’

‘Prim-ord-ial germs !’ shouted Straussheim, in amazement.

‘You appear astonished,’ calmly resumed the professor, with a touch of pride. ‘ I made the discovery quite unexpectedly. I was examining some mammalian embryos under the Gundlach immersion 1/16 a few weeks before we left, and it struck me that they differed but slightly from some lowly organic forms which we dredged last winter in the Baltic. I made a few tentative experiments, and found that I was able to bring forward the growth of the germs with considerable speed, by means of a secondary battery. Under a temperature of 31 229 Centigrade they developed so rapidly that I had to remove them from the slide lest they should burst the objective.’

The demonstrator was listening eagerly, his hand grasping a liana.

‘The careful experiments in which you assisted me last year in so able a manner’ – Straussheim bowed gracefully – ‘ resulted in our determining the precise composition of protoplasm. I have long been of opinion that the failure of Europe to build up living organisms in the laboratory arose from this circumstance. Biologists expected to obtain germs similar to the Monades, or, let us say, Bacterium termo, which the English microscopist Dallinger has shown to be the least and lowest form of life. But that Bacterium, simple as its structure seems, is a complex organism, at the end, not the beginning, of an infinite chain of being. When the elements of protoplasm are brought together, it is not Bacterium that results, but that immeasurably remote form of life which through innumerable ages gradually developed into such complex organisms as Bacterium and Spirillum. That remoter, ultimate form of life I have succeeded in producing from dead matter.’

The listener was breathless with awe. He clasped his hands aimlessly as the sublime thoughts raised by these words passed through his mind. With what immortal glory would the name of Bommsenn be covered when the discovery became known in the laboratories of Europe !

‘This being so, it occurred to me that the expedition which had been in my thoughts for some years was at last brought within the domain of the possible. I have been deterred hitherto by the necessity for a carefully equipped band, armed with the latest results of applied science. That necessity no longer exists. Everything we can possibly need lies potentially within the compass of this little box,’

Straussheim looked on, overwhelmed by the brilliancy of the conception which the fertile intellect of his master had brought forth. He was unable to speak.

The professor went on. ‘Our dietary has been confined of late to the productions of this country, and even these we have not been able to obtain in an adequate measure.’ He looked at his bony arms, which had lost not a little of their normal size. ‘ I feel the heimweh to-night very keenly, and could fancy a Frankfort sausage and some sauerkraut. Get out the microscope. I propose to develop them.’

III.

As he spoke he opened the match-box, and, with a pipette, drew forth a minute speck of matter.

‘From this germ,’ he began, with the vivid gesture with which the lecture-room at home was familiar, ‘ I will proceed to evolve a head of Brassica. Watch the field very closely, and tell me what you observe.’

While Straussheim adjusted the focus, the professor turned up their travelling lamp to its fullest capacity, and polished the reflector on the tattered sleeve of his shirt. The deathly stillness of the tropical night could almost be touched with the hand. ‘ I see nothing.’

‘Obviously. The germ is now passing through the stages of its life, which are beyond the reach of the vision of science. The miniature battery which I brought with me, and which I will connect with the substage, will be useful in hastening the process of evolution.’

“There is a Proiococcus in the field.’

‘Good. In the few minutes that have already elapsed, the primordial germ upon which we are experimenting has travelled through more than half the total length of the biological chain. From the Protococcus to the cabbage is a short and simple journey, compared with the toilsome path already traversed.’

‘It is growing.’

‘Naturally. I should like to watch its progress myself. Hold the notebook in readiness.’

The two scientists sat side by side, the one with his eye bent earnestly upon the microscope, the other jotting down the phases of growth observed by his master. Around them, not a breath stirred; all was noiseless, save for some stray beetle, beating against the lamp-glass, and the soul-piercing rustling of the uppermost leaves of the forest-trees.

‘ We have now arrived at the characeous stage in the life- history of the plant, and shall presently see it undergoing the changes which are connected with the embryonic growth of the fern. You will perceive that this organism is passing by swift stages through the same series of mutations through which the vegetable world has passed from the beginning.’

The two students of nature stood facing each other, the plant between them, watching this sublime panorama of the world of life.

‘Quick. The embryo is now cruciferous. Place it gently in the peat-mould at your side, before it grows and bursts the objective.’

The demonstrator obeyed. The four eyes watched hungrily the progress of their creation. In a few minutes the leaves expanded, the head of flowers burst into full glory, and the cabbage was mature.

‘ You have watched my method of using the battery. Take some chips of wood, and extract from them by the same process some acetic acid. Steep the cabbage in it, while I produce the sausage.’

As he spoke, the professor opened his match-box once more, and drew therefrom another germ. Placing it on the stage, he prepared to follow it in its career. Straussheim, the sauerkraut ready, looked on. The biologist could scarcely repress a burst of triumph as he perceived the germ gradually unfolding all the mysterious processes of mesoblast, ectoblast, and endoblast, which pertain to the earliest history of an arthropod. ‘ We have here,’ he remarked aloud, ‘ if such were needed, a complete refutation of the views advanced by Weissner of Salerno at the last annual meeting of the Crustacean Society. You will remember that I attacked them at the time, basing my argument on the analogy of the Cephalopoda. The history of this germ abundantly proves that the mesoblast is the primary origin of the stomach and its accessories. I wish Weissner was here.’

By some slight process of association the professor turned, as he spoke, to see that the sauerkraut was all right. He gave a, grunt of satisfaction,

‘We are now face to face with the true development of the birds, and their embryologic relations with the lowest mammals. My view that the higher birds are morphologically above the marsupiata here receives incontrovertible support.’

The demonstrator acquiesced, with a gesture of unfaltering reverence.

‘Time flies. What does the chronometer say ?’
‘Two o’clock.’

‘Ah, we are nearing our goal. I begin to recognise the generic characters of the Bovidie. Clear a space beyond you in the underwood, so that our beeve may have free exercise.’

‘You incline, professor, to the bovine theory of the morphology of the sausage. I have always assumed its porcine character.’

‘Your assumption is perhaps scarcely warranted. An analysis I conducted a few years back revealed little of a definite nature except trichinosis. The evidence as to the structure of the sausage is conflicting. I have selected the most generous hypothesis.’

All this time, Herr Bommsenn’s gaze was riveted to the eyepiece. He at first appeared interested, rapidly dictating notes of his observations. Then his face clouded with anxiety, and with breathless suspense he watched the progress of development. Gradually a cold perspiration broke out upon his forehead, and he clasped his hands, half in dread, half in triumph. Presently he spoke, almost under his breath.

‘ The germ has passed the stage of the Ruminantia, and is rapidly assuming the characteristics of the Primates. I begin to fear we shall not be able to stop it.’

The demonstrator felt a thrill of dread, as of some approaching evil. With one hand he tightly clutched the gourd in which the sauerkraut was lying ready for consumption, and with the other pressed his forehead, watching the professor’s movements keenly. ‘The embryo is losing the precursors of the caudal vertebrae. It presents characters which I do not recognise as pertaining even to the human species. Straussheim, we have outstripped the chain of zoological life; this embryo is higher than man.”

Suddenly the professor rose with a gasp of nervous terror, and gingerly slipped the glass off the stage. His eyes were riveted upon the spot where the germ had dropped amongst the teak roots. The men grasped each other’s hands in the intensity of their fear, too intent to notice the approach of a group of elephants, attracted by the glare. Presently they saw arising before them with visible progression a being not utterly unwomanlike, with its human features overclouded by others of a strange terrifying character. It had no teeth, no hair, no toes. Its face was dirty white, its height about four feet, and its thoracic cavity shrunken and bowed. Beyond this it was impossible to carry the description. The horrible development presented features which the language of men is powerless to express. The two biologists gazed on the work of their hands until the pupils of their eyes dilated to an alarming extent, and they fell together to the ground in a mesmeric trance.

This summer, a French officer, passing through the teak forest on a journey of prospection on behalf of his Government, found in a natural glade the bones of two men, and by their side a battered microscope, a gun, and the remains of a secondary battery. With the instinct of his race he covered the remains gently with a little earth, and, on the trunk of a rubber tree hard by, carved this inscription:—

‘Died in the cause of Science.’

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