The Man Who Said He Could Create Life

In The 19th Century Andrew Crosse Risked the Wrath of Religious Authorities. Was He On to Something?

Researchers creating life from scratch” proclaim recent headlines. They’re called “synthetic biologists,” said the As­sociated press, and they boldly claim the ability to make never-before-seen living things, one genetic molecule at a time.

They’re mixing, matching and stacking DNA’s chemical components, it’s said, like microscopic Lego blocks in an effort to make biologically based computers, medicines and alternative energy sources. The rapidly expanding field is confounding the taxonomists’ centuries-old system of classifying species and raising concerns about the new technol­ogy’s potential for misuse.

The research, however, is but the latest attempt to create life in the laboratory whatever the consequences.—Ed.

Early in the 19th century, the newly discovered science of electricity was amazing the world. William Thomson, Michael Faraday, James Maxwell, Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin are just a few of the names among the early pioneers. But in a small village in the Quantock Hills in Somerset in England, a lone researcher became known to some as ‘the thunder and lightning man.’ His rustic neighbors shunned his house like the plague for after nightfall, devils, it was said, could be seen dancing upon copper wires laid on the ground. The superstitious locals watched with open mouths as forks of lightning flashed through the air. Andrew Crosse was a simple, honest man, a local represen­tative in the British Parliament but he was also a devoted researcher into this new science of electricity.

He was fortunate enough to have the time and the money to pursue scientific experimentation despite the fact that he was hampered by lack of college schooling and a complete lack of knowledge of other men in the field. He had been a precocious child, having mastered Ancient Greek at the age of eight. At nine, he was sent to Dr. Seyer’s School in Bristol where he was captivated with the new science of electricity. While there, he earned a reputation as a practical joker and on one occasion wired up the metal doorknobs of all the classroom doors to a huge accumulator in order to give the teachers an electric shock when they entered the class.

From that time on, electricity was to become a lifetime obsession and when his mother died in 1805 and Crosse inherited the family estates, he used the newly acquired wealth to set up an extensive laboratory at Fyne Court, the family seat, where his bizarre experimenting began.

His early experiments, like many other scientists in Europe such as Heinrich Hertz in Germany, Luigi Galvani in Italy and Nikola Tesla in Serbia, were directed towards the generation of electricity. However, Andrew Crosse’s work led him on to a different line of experimentation, namely, the conduction of electrical current through various chem­ical solutions.

One of these first trials used flint, ground fine, mixed with potassium carbonate and dissolved in hydrochloric acid. This fluid was allowed to dry and then Crosse used an electric battery to pass a current through it to see if it formed crystals. It did not but Crosse noticed a curious side effect—small white lumps formed and after a few days, these began to grow. After about a week, Crosse was astonished to see that these small lumps were not only still growing but they looked like legs. On the eighteenth day the projections were still enlarging and seven or eight fila­ments stuck out, each of them longer than the hemisphere on which they grew. After four weeks, they were not only still growing but they were moving around. They looked like small insects.

Crosse’s first conclusion was that these were insect eggs that had contaminated the experiment so he repeated it using air-tight containers sterilized with hot alcohol and he arranged an electric wire to enter the sealed chamber through a glass stopper. To his delight, he could see the creatures crawling around, so this disposed of the insect egg theory. Under a microscope he observed over a hundred of the creatures growing, and he also saw that the smaller ones had six legs and the larger ones eight. He concluded, much to his own amazement, that he had in fact created life.

Andrew Crosse was understandably elated with his “discovery” and in 1837 he wrote a paper which he presented to the London Electric Society. He called the creatures insects of the species ‘Acarus’ (mites) and in a letter written in August 1849 to Harriet Martineau, a fellow researcher, he stated, “As to the appearance of these Acari under long-continued electrical action, I have never in thought, word or deed, given anyone a right to suppose that I considered them as a creation, or even as a formation from inorganic matter. To create is to form something out of nothing. To annihilate is to reduce that something to a nothing. Both of these, of course, can only be attributed to the Almighty.”

He stated later in a further communication to Harriet Martineau that “in fact, I assure you most sacredly that I have not dreamed of any theory sufficient to account for the appearance of these creatures and I confess that I was not a little surprised, and am still so, and quite as much as I was when the Acari first made their appearance. Again, I have never claimed any merit as attaching to these experiments. It was a matter of chance. I was looking for siliceous formations and Acari appeared instead.”

He went on to say, “I have never ventured an opinion on the cause of their birth, and for a very good reason—I was unable to form one. The simplest solution of the problem which occurred to me was that they arose from an ova deposited by insects floating in the atmosphere and hatched by electrical action. Still, I could not imagine that an ovum could shoot out filaments, or that these filaments could become bristles, and moreover I could not detect, on the closest examination, the remains of a shell. I next imagined, as others have done, that they might originate from the water and consequently made a close examination of numbers of vessels filled with the same fluid: in none of these could I perceive a trace of an insect, nor could I see any in any other part of the room.”

In subsequent experiments, Crosse used concentrated solutions of such substances as copper nitrate, copper sul­phate and zinc sulphate. The Acari generally made their appearance on the edge of the fluid surface, Crosse adding that, “in some cases, these insects appear two inches under the electrified fluid.”

The impact upon the scientific world was, not surprisingly, colossal and, understandably, the impact on all Britain was staggering. From there, the news agencies spread the story throughout Europe. Newspaper reports sensational­ized the story, claiming that Crosse had ‘created life.’ He was condemned as ‘an atheist,’ ‘a blasphemer,’ and ‘a distur­ber of the peace of families’ by the church and rapidly became one of the most hated men in Britain. Merchants re­fused to serve him, neighbors closed their doors in his face and the local church sent the Reverend Philip Smith to lead a deputation to hammer on his front doorstep and perform an exorcism ceremony. He received dozens of angry letters in which he was accused of blasphemy and trying to take God’s role as a creator. He received death threats while local farmers blamed him for the blight of their wheat crop.

As a result of his apparent results, it was inevitable that other experimenters should attempt to reproduce Crosse’s work. Many of them claimed to succeed although others failed. Michael Faraday, who later became famous as one of the early pioneer developers of electricity, reported to London’s Royal Institute that he had replicated the experiment. However, according to Wikipedia, this was not true. Faraday had not even attempted the experiment. Henry Weeks of Sandwich, another enthusiastic researcher into the possibilities of electricity—this wondrous new discovery— attempted to make certain that no interference could take place in the process. He listed a number of precautions to ensure, as far as he possibly could, that no animal life was already present at the beginning of the experiments. Among the many measures taken were: to bake his apparatus in an oven; to use only distilled water; to fill his receiv­ers (which were inverted over troughs of mercury) with manufactured oxygen instead of air; and to superheat his sili­cate solutions. After a year and a half of dedicated work, he finally produced Acari.

Weeks promptly dived in to feverish and extensive research. His next efforts centered around the use of ferro­cyanate of potassium, selecting it because he reasoned that it contained a larger proportion of carbon than any of the other previously used compounds and because carbon was the principal element of organic bodies. His results were promptly successful and other researchers began to report that they too had duplicated Crosse’s work.

Word of this astonishing discovery continued to spread. More and more eager experimenters undertook the repeti­tion of Crosse’s process. Some failed, some succeeded.

Andrew Crosse appeared to have conceived an original combination of circumstances. He had combined the new science of electricity with that already known phenomenon of organic matter, crystallization. The best-known such example is the Arbor Dianae, the Tree of Diana. It is produced as an amalgam of four parts of silver and two of mercu­ry, these being dissolved in nitric acid and water equal to thirty parts by weight of the metals being added. A small piece of soft amalgam of silver is then suspended in the solution which then forms itself into crystals that closely re­sembles a shrub. It is very likely that Andrew Crosse, in attempting to combine the new science of electricity with the older science of crystallization had known of the Arbor Dianae and that this had dictated the path to Crosse’s discov­ery of the Acari. Electricity was but a recent addition to the world of science and so it is not surprising that no one had hitherto made the connection between the two disciplines.

Inevitably the conflict between science and religion grew and controversies arose. The schism became a major is­sue, debated and discussed at many levels. How did Crosse’s work fit in with what was generally believed about evolu­tion?

Much conventional speculation concerning the origin of life on earth says that it began 4.3 billion years ago when our world was a young but forbidding planet. The turbulent atmosphere in those times, it is theorized, was a mixture of steam, nitrogen, methane, ammonia and other gases and carbon. Only one gas was absent: oxygen. This gas is pro­duced by plant life and did not exist in the free state before the arrival of life. But how exactly did life on earth begin? Materialists think it probably began in an entirely accidental way. They argue that the dead matter floating around in the oceans or that early earth supposedly consisted of various random molecules that collided with one another until one day, a specific molecule was formed in this random way that could reproduce copies of itself.

The theory continues to suppose that protein chains—organic compounds containing the elements carbon, hy­drogen, oxygen and nitrogen—consist of sub-units called amino acids. There are billions of possibilities suggesting how the right protein chain could have appeared but it is thought that one such possibility could explain how what has been described as earth’s primeval-soup produced its first form of life.

In 1952, an American graduate student named Stanley Lloyd Miller set up an experiment intended to reproduce in the laboratory an environment conducive to life in primordial times. He put methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water in a flask and boiled the mixture for several days, occasionally discharging artificial lightning via two electrodes into it. (A parallel with Andrew Crosse’s experiment is immediately apparent.) Miller theorized that this would simulate the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. After a week, Miller analyzed the solution that had formed in the flask and claimed that in addition to the rudimentary substances lacking in nitrogen atoms—he had formed glycine and ala­nine, two simple amino acids.

Miller argued that he had created the building blocks of life in the laboratory—an announcement that sent shock waves rippling through the scientific community and inevitably, an outcry arose from some religious authorities— another parallel with Andrew Crosse.

Crosse died on July 6, 1855, in the same room he was born. He was seventy-one years old. He died an embittered man and to this day, his seeming accomplishment remains unexplained, though most commentators think that prob­ably cheese or dust mites must have contaminated his instruments. Had he, in some way, hit upon a combination of electricity and chemistry that reproduced the primordial soup that the evolutionists theorized was needed to create the world’s first life form . . ? Or had he stumbled upon a previously unrealized relationship between crystalline and organic matter?

Today’s scientific experimenters continue to pursue these and other difficult questions. For some they are heroes, but others wonder if they might be more like that other 19th century icon, Dr. Frankenstein.

BY PETER KING

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