The Dawn of Food: Chapter 1
THE DISCOVERY OF THE FOOD.
In the middle years of the nineteenth century there first became
abundant in this strange world of ours a class of men, men tending for
the most part to become elderly, who are called, and who are very
properly called, but who dislike extremely to be called--"Scientists."
They dislike that word so much that from the columns of _Nature_, which
was from the first their distinctive and characteristic paper, it is as
carefully excluded as if it were--that other word which is the basis of
all really bad language in this country. But the Great Public and its
Press know better, and "Scientists" they are, and when they emerge to
any sort of publicity, "distinguished scientists" and "eminent
scientists" and "well-known scientists" is the very least we call them.
Certainly both Mr. Bensington and Professor Redwood quite merited any of
these terms long before they came upon the marvellous discovery of which
this story tells. Mr. Bensington was a Fellow of the Royal Society and
a former president of the Chemical Society, and Professor Redwood was
Professor of Physiology in the Bond Street College of the London
University, and he had been grossly libelled by the anti-vivisectionists
time after time. And they had led lives of academic distinction from
their very earliest youth.
They were of course quite undistinguished looking men, as indeed all
true Scientists are. There is more personal distinction about the
mildest-mannered actor alive than there is about the entire Royal
Society. Mr. Bensington was short and very, very bald, and he stooped
slightly; he wore gold-rimmed spectacles and cloth boots that were
abundantly cut open because of his numerous corns, and Professor Redwood
was entirely ordinary in his appearance. Until they happened upon the
Food of the Gods (as I must insist upon calling it) they led lives of
such eminent and studious obscurity that it is hard to find anything
whatever to tell the reader about them.
Mr. Bensington won his spurs (if one may use such an expression of a
gentleman in boots of slashed cloth) by his splendid researches upon the
More Toxic Alkaloids, and Professor Redwood rose to eminence--I do not
clearly remember how he rose to eminence! I know he was very eminent,
and that's all. Things of this sort grow. I fancy it was a voluminous
work on Reaction Times with numerous plates of sphygmograph tracings (I
write subject to correction) and an admirable new terminology, that did
the thing for him.
The general public saw little or nothing of either of these gentlemen.
Sometimes at places like the Royal Institution and the Society of Arts
it did in a sort of way see Mr. Bensington, or at least his blushing
baldness and something of his collar and coat, and hear fragments of a
lecture or paper that he imagined himself to be reading audibly; and
once I remember--one midday in the vanished past--when the British
Association was at Dover, coming on Section C or D, or some such letter,
which had taken up its quarters in a public-house, and following two,
serious-looking ladies with paper parcels, out of mere curiosity,
through a door labelled "Billiards" and "Pool" into a scandalous
darkness, broken only by a magic-lantern circle of Redwood's tracings.
I watched the lantern slides come and go, and listened to a voice (I
forget what it was saying) which I believe was the voice of Professor
Redwood, and there was a sizzling from the lantern and another sound
that kept me there, still out of curiosity, until the lights were
unexpectedly turned up. And then I perceived that this sound was the
sound of the munching of buns and sandwiches and things that the
assembled British Associates had come there to eat under cover of the
And Redwood I remember went on talking all the time the lights were up
and dabbing at the place where his diagram ought to have been visible on
the screen--and so it was again so soon as the darkness was restored. I
remember him then as a most ordinary, slightly nervous-looking dark man,
with an air of being preoccupied with something else, and doing what he
was doing just then under an unaccountable sense of duty.
I heard Bensington also once--in the old days--at an educational
conference in Bloomsbury. Like most eminent chemists and botanists, Mr.
Bensington was very authoritative upon teaching--though I am certain he
would have been scared out of his wits by an average Board School class
in half-an-hour--and so far as I can remember now, he was propounding an
improvement of Professor Armstrong's Heuristic method, whereby at the
cost of three or four hundred pounds' worth of apparatus, a total
neglect of all other studies and the undivided attention of a teacher of
exceptional gifts, an average child might with a peculiar sort of thumby
thoroughness learn in the course of ten or twelve years almost as much
chemistry as one could get in one of those objectionable shilling
text-books that were then so common....
Quite ordinary persons you perceive, both of them, outside their
science. Or if anything on the unpractical side of ordinary. And that
you will find is the case with "scientists" as a class all the world
over. What there is great of them is an annoyance to their fellow
scientists and a mystery to the general public, and what is not is
There is no doubt about what is not great, no race of men have such
obvious littlenesses. They live in a narrow world so far as their human
intercourse goes; their researches involve infinite attention and an
almost monastic seclusion; and what is left over is not very much. To
witness some queer, shy, misshapen, greyheaded, self-important, little
discoverer of great discoveries, ridiculously adorned with the wide
ribbon of some order of chivalry and holding a reception of his
fellow-men, or to read the anguish of _Nature_ at the "neglect of
science" when the angel of the birthday honours passes the Royal Society
by, or to listen to one indefatigable lichenologist commenting on the
work of another indefatigable lichenologist, such things force one to
realise the unfaltering littleness of men.
And withal the reef of Science that these little "scientists" built and
are yet building is so wonderful, so portentous, so full of mysterious
half-shapen promises for the mighty future of man! They do not seem to
realise the things they are doing! No doubt long ago even Mr.
Bensington, when he chose this calling, when he consecrated his life to
the alkaloids and their kindred compounds, had some inkling of the
vision,--more than an inkling. Without some such inspiration, for such
glories and positions only as a "scientist" may expect, what young man
would have given his life to such work, as young men do? No, they _must_
have seen the glory, they must have had the vision, but so near that it
has blinded them. The splendour has blinded them, mercifully, so that
for the rest of their lives they can hold the lights of knowledge in
comfort--that we may see!
And perhaps it accounts for Redwood's touch of preoccupation,
that--there can be no doubt of it now--he among his fellows was
different, he was different inasmuch as something of the vision still
lingered in his eyes.
The Food of the Gods I call it, this substance that Mr. Bensington and
Professor Redwood made between them; and having regard now to what it
has already done and all that it is certainly going to do, there is
surely no exaggeration in the name. So I shall continue to call it
therefore throughout my story. But Mr. Bensington would no more have
called it that in cold blood than he would have gone out from his flat
in Sloane Street clad in regal scarlet and a wreath of laurel. The
phrase was a mere first cry of astonishment from him. He called it the
Food of the Gods, in his enthusiasm and for an hour or so at the most
altogether. After that he decided he was being absurd. When he first
thought of the thing he saw, as it were, a vista of enormous
possibilities--literally enormous possibilities; but upon this dazzling
vista, after one stare of amazement, he resolutely shut his eyes, even
as a conscientious "scientist" should. After that, the Food of the Gods
sounded blatant to the pitch of indecency. He was surprised he had used
the expression. Yet for all that something of that clear-eyed moment
hung about him and broke out ever and again....
"Really, you know," he said, rubbing his hands together and laughing
nervously, "it has more than a theoretical interest.
"For example," he confided, bringing his face close to the Professor's
and dropping to an undertone, "it would perhaps, if suitably handled,
"Precisely," he said, walking away,--"as a Food. Or at least a food
"Assuming of course that it is palatable. A thing we cannot know till we
have prepared it."
He turned upon the hearthrug, and studied the carefully designed slits
upon his cloth shoes.
"Name?" he said, looking up in response to an inquiry. "For my part I
incline to the good old classical allusion. It--it makes Science res--.
Gives it a touch of old-fashioned dignity. I have been thinking ... I
don't know if you will think it absurd of me.... A little fancy is
surely occasionally permissible.... Herakleophorbia. Eh? The nutrition
of a possible Hercules? You know it _might_ ...
"Of course if you think _not_--"
Redwood reflected with his eyes on the fire and made no objection.
"You think it would do?"
Redwood moved his head gravely.
"It might be Titanophorbia, you know. Food of Titans.... You prefer the
"You're quite sure you don't think it a little _too_--"
"Ah! I'm glad."
And so they called it Herakleophorbia throughout their investigations,
and in their report,--the report that was never published, because of
the unexpected developments that upset all their arrangements,--it is
invariably written in that way. There were three kindred substances
prepared before they hit on the one their speculations had foretolds and
these they spoke of as Herakleophorbia I, Herakleophorbia II, and
Herakleophorbia III. It is Herakleophorbia IV. which I--insisting upon
Bensington's original name--call here the Food of the Gods.
The idea was Mr. Bensington's. But as it was suggested to him by one of
Professor Redwood's contributions to the Philosophical Transactions, he
very properly consulted that gentleman before he carried it further.
Besides which it was, as a research, a physiological, quite as much as a
Professor Redwood was one of those scientific men who are addicted to
tracings and curves. You are familiar--if you are at all the sort of
reader I like--with the sort of scientific paper I mean. It is a paper
you cannot make head nor tail of, and at the end come five or six long
folded diagrams that open out and show peculiar zigzag tracings, flashes
of lightning overdone, or sinuous inexplicable things called "smoothed
curves" set up on ordinates and rooting in abscissae--and things like
that. You puzzle over the thing for a long time and end with the
suspicion that not only do you not understand it but that the author
does not understand it either. But really you know many of these
scientific people understand the meaning of their own papers quite well:
it is simply a defect of expression that raises the obstacle between us.
I am inclined to think that Redwood thought in tracings and curves. And
after his monumental work upon Reaction Times (the unscientific reader
is exhorted to stick to it for a little bit longer and everything will
be as clear as daylight) Redwood began to turn out smoothed curves and
sphygmographeries upon Growth, and it was one of his papers upon Growth
that really gave Mr. Bensington his idea.
Redwood, you know, had been measuring growing things of all sorts,
kittens, puppies, sunflowers, mushrooms, bean plants, and (until his
wife put a stop to it) his baby, and he showed that growth went out not
at a regular pace, or, as he put it, so,
but with bursts and intermissions of this sort.
and that apparently nothing grew regularly and steadily, and so far as
he could make out nothing could grow regularly and steadily: it was as
if every living thing had just to accumulate force to grow, grew with
vigour only for a time, and then had to wait for a space before it could
go on growing again. And in the muffled and highly technical language of
the really careful "scientist," Redwood suggested that the process of
growth probably demanded the presence of a considerable quantity of some
necessary substance in the blood that was only formed very slowly, and
that when this substance was used up by growth, it was only very slowly
replaced, and that meanwhile the organism had to mark time. He compared
his unknown substance to oil in machinery. A growing animal was rather
like an engine, he suggested, that can move a certain distance and must
then be oiled before it can run again. ("But why shouldn't one oil the
engine from without?" said Mr. Bensington, when he read the paper.) And
all this, said Redwood, with the delightful nervous inconsecutiveness of
his class, might very probably be found to throw a light upon the
mystery of certain of the ductless glands. As though they had anything
to do with it at all!
In a subsequent communication Redwood went further. He gave a perfect
Brock's benefit of diagrams--exactly like rocket trajectories they were;
and the gist of it--so far as it had any gist--was that the blood of
puppies and kittens and the sap of sunflowers and the juice of mushrooms
in what he called the "growing phase" differed in the proportion of
certain elements from their blood and sap on the days when they were not
And when Mr. Bensington, after holding the diagrams sideways and upside
down, began to see what this difference was, a great amazement came upon
him. Because, you see, the difference might probably be due to the
presence of just the very substance he had recently been trying to
isolate in his researches upon such alkaloids as are most stimulating to
the nervous system. He put down Redwood's paper on the patent
reading-desk that swung inconveniently from his arm-chair, took off his
gold-rimmed spectacles, breathed on them and wiped them very carefully.
"By Jove!" said Mr. Bensington.
Then replacing his spectacles again he turned to the patent
reading-desk, which immediately, as his elbow came against its arm, gave
a coquettish squeak and deposited the paper, with all its diagrams in a
dispersed and crumpled state, on the floor. "By Jove!" said Mr.
Bensington, straining his stomach over the armchair with a patient
disregard of the habits of this convenience, and then, finding the
pamphlet still out of reach, he went down on all fours in pursuit. It
was on the floor that the idea of calling it the Food of the Gods came
For you see, if he was right and Redwood was right, then by injecting or
administering this new substance of his in food, he would do away with
the "resting phase," and instead of growth going on in this fashion,
it would (if you follow me) go thus--
The night after his conversation with Redwood Mr. Bensington could
scarcely sleep a wink. He did seem once to get into a sort of doze, but
it was only for a moment, and then he dreamt he had dug a deep hole into
the earth and poured in tons and tons of the Food of the Gods, and the
earth was swelling and swelling, and all the boundaries of the countries
were bursting, and the Royal Geographical Society was all at work like
one great guild of tailors letting out the equator....
That of course was a ridiculous dream, but it shows the state of mental
excitement into which Mr. Bensington got and the real value he attached
to his idea, much better than any of the things he said or did when he
was awake and on his guard. Or I should not have mentioned it, because
as a general rule I do not think it is at all interesting for people to
tell each other about their dreams.
By a singular coincidence Redwood also had a dream that night, and his
dream was this:--
[Illustration] It was a diagram done in fire upon a long scroll of the
abyss. And he (Redwood) was standing on a planet before a sort of black
platform lecturing about the new sort of growth that was now possible,
to the More than Royal Institution of Primordial Forces--forces which
had always previously, even in the growth of races, empires, planetary
systems, and worlds, gone so:--
And even in some cases so:--
And he was explaining to them quite lucidly and convincingly that these
slow, these even retrogressive methods would be very speedily quite put
out of fashion by his discovery.
Ridiculous of course! But that too shows--
That either dream is to be regarded as in any way significant or
prophetic beyond what I have categorically said, I do not for one moment