It has already been stated that the material protoplasm, which forms all active cells, is capable of carrying on the many functions required for the independent existence of simple creatures. It will be found in the subsequent pages that not only can protoplasm perform all the activities necessary for the life history of unicellular organisms, but that it can also work out all the functions of the most complex animals. Indeed, the cells which accomplish the most elaborate functions in man, are but protoplasm more or less modified for the special purpose to be attained.
The different living operations of many independent unicellular organisms can be more completely watched than the changes which take place in the cells of the higher animals, both on account of their greater size, their freedom, and the more obvious character of the changes taking place in them. The student is therefore advised to spend some time in contemplating the operations which go on in those simple organisms whose life is not complicated by structural or functional elaboration, before attempting to solve the difficult question of the mechanism of the human body.
The lowest forms of living creatures that we are acquainted with (micrococcus and bacterimn), are placed among the fungi in the vegetable kingdom. On account of their extremely minute size - being hardly visible as spherical or elongated specks with a powerful microscope - we can say but little about their structure. They appear to be translucent and homogeneous.
Since we use the term protoplasm to denote the material of which the active part of the simplest forms of living beings are composed, we must assume that bacteria are small particles of that material, but the characters attributed to protoplasm cannot be detected in the minute glistening mass which makes up their body.
They are so certain to appear in a couple of days in organic infusions, or in any fluid prone to putrefaction, and multiply with such astounding rapidity, that they have been supposed by some to develop spontaneously. But this is now known not to be a fact. Bacteria can no more than any other form of living thing appear without progenitors. They float inanimate and dry in multitudes through our atmosphere, and adhere to all substances to which the air has free access. The moment they alight upon a suitable habitat,- they burst into prodigious activity, at first forming masses or colonies, which may be seen as a jelly-like scum on the fluid. Such a habitat is supplied by any organic substance capable of ready decomposition, for which process, as is well known, the great requirements for life, moisture and warmth are to a certain degree necessary. Vast varieties of these organisms are now known. They differ slightly in shape, in their habitat, and in their properties. Some are obviously composed of two distinct layers, some are provided with a fine hair-like process, by the lash-like motions of which they move rapidly in a definite direction.
They are known to be inseparable from putrefactive changes in organic materials; without them no putrefaction can go on, since this process is but the product of their living activity. Great heat kills them, too great cold or dryness checks their activity and stops putrefaction. When an organic substance is absolutely protected from their presence by exclusion of the air, etc., no putrefaction occurs, even though it be prone to spontaneous decomposition, and be placed under favorable circumstances as to warmth and moisture.
Bacteria would not deserve so much notice here were it not for the pathogenic influence some of them have on the higher forms of life. We do not know that they are necessary for any of the more important processes that normally go on in the human body, though they are constantly present in the intestinal tract, and are inseparable from at least one change taking place 8 there that may be regarded as physiological. It is their relation to the diseased state that makes a knowledge of these creatures imperative to medical men.
So long as the tissue of a higher animal is healthy and well nourished, the commoner forms of septic bacteria cannot thrive in immediate contact with it. They can only exist in the intestine, etc., because there they find accumulations of lifeless fluids which offer them a suitable nidus. Active living tissues may be said to have antiseptic power, i. e., are able to destroy septic bacteria; and it is only owing to this bactericide power of our textures, that we can with immunity breathe into our lungs the atmospheric air often crowded with these organisms, and swallow multitudes of them with our food. But for it every wound would become putrid, every breath might admit deadly germs to our blood.
When the vitality of the body generally is lowered, the vital activity of the tissue may fall below that necessary to insure the death of the bacteria, whose victory is signaled by unwonted and often fatal changes. Morbid fluids allowed to accumulate in the textures facilitate the growth of bacteria, and give rise to various grades of "wound infection." But if all accumulations be avoided, the bacteria brought into relation with the living tissue only irritate it, and cause general fever and local suffering to the patient. They cannot propagate in live tissue as in lifeless fluids. As a rule, the injurious effect of bacteria is in inverse proportion to the vital power of the textures which they invade. This is seen in many cases familiar to the physician and the surgeon. There are, however, many forms of pathogenic bacteria which, if introduced into the system by inoculation, are able to overcome the vital activity of the tissues of certain animals even in the most robust health.