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It’s Funnier When You’re Right

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The mystery of alcoholic fermentations was uncovered in the first half of the 19th century by Cagniard-Latour (1837) in France, and Schwann (1837) and Kützing (1837) in Germany, based on microscopic studies but not without controversy. The great German organic chemist Justus Liebig did not like the idea that alcoholic fermentation involved living things and fought vehemently against it. Chemistry sufficed. With Liebig’s help, his associate Friederich Wöhler (famed for his synthesis of urea) wrote a spoof on the proposal that yeast is the cause of fermentation and published it anonymously in 1839 in the journal that he and Liebig edited, “Annalen der Pharmacie” (vol. 29, pp. 100–104). This journal later became the august “Liebig’s Annalen der Chemie.” The article was entitled “The Mystery of Alcoholic Fermentation Unraveled” (“Das enträthselte Geheimniss der geistigen Gährung”). It took Pasteur to champion the cause of yeast and to lay the matter to rest. But Wöhler and Liebig had their mischievous fun while it lasted. Here is some of what they wrote:

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