History of Bacteriology


Bacteriology was established in the 1880s as the science of disease germs. However, experimental explorations in the world of microorganisms had started already in the seventeenth century, and botanists and zoologists in the eighteenth century had tried to structure and classify the world of the invisible living organisms. With the German physician Robert Koch the science of microorganisms moved into the realm of medicine. Koch identified several bacteria as the causes of infectious diseases and he contributed greatly to the stabilisation of distinct bacterial species. Medical bacteriology promoted laboratory medicine and Louis Pasteur in Paris developed techniques to attenuate microorganisms in order to produce vaccines. Antibiotics became widely available only after the Second World War. Bacteriology has also developed in relation to agriculture, water (pollution) and biotechnology. Non‐medical approaches to the micro‐world contributed to a broader understanding of microorganisms not only as pathogens but as essential entities in ecological life cycles. At the turn of the twenty‐first century, reductionist views of host–parasite relation gave way to more complex, process‐orientated and environmentalist approaches.

Key Concepts

  • First experimental encounters with microorganisms took place using microscopic techniques in the seventeenth century.
  • Classification of microorganisms was discussed by zoologists and botanists since the mid‐eighteenth century.
  • A causal linkage between microorganisms and disease was established only in the last third of the nineteenth century.
  • Medical bacteriology developed around the laboratories of Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur and had tremendous effects on public health as well as on conceptions of the body and disease.
  • Robert Koch's bacteriological thought style implied a reductionist approach to infectious disease.
  • Broadly applicable antibacterial therapeutic remedies (antibiotics) became widely available only in the second half of the twentieth century.
  • Bacteriology has also developed in relation to agriculture, marine biology, water pollution, bacterial genetics and biotechnologies.
  • Environmentalist and evolutionary approaches to microorganisms and host–parasite relation prevailed at the turn to the twenty‐first century.

Keywords: bacteriology; history; Robert Koch; Louis Pasteur; microbiology; laboratory science; host–parasite relation

Figure 1. ‘Animalcula infusoria’ classed as Vibrio by O.F. Müller in 1786. Reproduced from O.F. Müller 1786. https://archive.org/stream/animalculainfuso00ml#page/n449/mode/2up.
Figure 2. Anthrax bacillus presented by Robert Koch in 1876. Reproduced from Robert Koch, 1876 https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Koch#/media/File:Aetiologie_der_Milzbrandkrankheit.jpg.


Amsterdamska O (1987) Medical and biological constraints: early research on variation in bacteriology. Social Studies of Science 17: 657–687.

Andrews BJ (1997) Tuberculosis and the assimilation of germ theory in China, 1895–1937. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 52: 114–157.

Berger S (2009) Bakterien in Krieg und Frieden. Eine Geschichte der medizinischen Bakteriologie in Deutschland 1890–1933. Göttingen: Wallstein.

Brock TD (1990) The Emergence of Bacterial Genetics. Cold Spring Harbor: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Bud R (2007) Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Canguilhem G (1988) Bacteriology and the end of nineteenth‐century ‘Medical Theory’. In: Canguilhem G (ed) Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences, pp. 51–77. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cohn F (1872) Untersuchungen über Bacterien. Beiträge zur Biologie der Pflanzen 1: 141–207.

Creager A (2002) The Life of a Virus: Tobacco Mosaic Virus as an Experimental Model, 1930–1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dujardin F (1841) Histoire naturelle des zoophytes. Infusoires, Paris. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/40473#page/9/mode/1up (accessed 21 June 2016).

Eckart W (2002) The colony as laboratory: German sleeping sickness campaigns in German East Africa and in Togo, 1900–1914. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 24: 69–89.

Ehrenberg CG (1838) Die Infusionsthierchen als vollkommene Organismen. Ein Blick in das tiefere organische Leben der Natur, Leipzig. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/119736#page/5/mode/1up (accessed 21 June 2016).

Geison G (1995) The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gradmann C (2009) Laboratory Disease: Robert Koch's Medical Bacteriology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Grote M (in preparation) Petri dish. In: Bauer S, Schünder M and Rentetzi M (eds) Boxes in Action. Manchester.

Hallier E (1867) Das Cholera‐Contagium. Botanische Untersuchungen, Ärzten und Naturforschern mitgeteilt, Leipzig. https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_9sU9AAAAYAAJ (accessed 21 June 2016).

Hamlin C (1990) A Science of Impurity: Water Analysis in Nineteenth Century Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hirszfeld L (1931) Prolegomena zur Immunitätslehre. Klinische Wochenschrift 10: 2153–2159.

Hüntelmann A (2011) Paul Ehrlich. Leben, Forschung, Ökonomie, Netzwerke. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag.

Institute of Medicine (2006) Ending the war metaphor: The Changing Agenda for Unravelling the Host‐Microbe Relationship – Workshop Summary, Washington D.C.

Koch R (1912a) Die Bekämpfung der Infektionskrankheiten, insbesondere der Kriegsseuchen [1888]. In: Schwalbe J (ed) Gesammelte Werke von Robert Koch, pp. 276–289. Leipzig: Thieme.

Koch R (1912b) Weitere Mitteilungen über ein Heilmittel gegen Tuberkulose [1890]. In: Schwalbe J (ed) Gesammelte Werke von Robert Koch, pp. 661–668. Leipzig: Thieme.

Kroker K (2008) Creatures of reason? Picturing viruses at the Pasteur Institute during the 1920s. In: Keelan J and Mazumdar PM (eds) Crafting Immunity. Working Histories of Clinical Immunology, pp. 145–163. Ashgate: Aldershot.

Latour B (1988) The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.

van Leeuwenhoek A (1677) Observations communicated to the publisher by Mr. Antony van Leewenhoek, in a Dutch letter of the 9th of October 1676. Here English'd: Concerning little Animals by him observed in Rain‐ Well‐ Sea‐ and Snow‐water; as also in water wherein pepper had lain infused. Philosophical Transactions 12: 821–831, here p. 821. http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/133‐142/821.full.pdf+html.

Löffler F (1884) Untersuchungen über die Bedeutung der Mikroorganismen für die Entstehung der Diphtherie beim Menschen, bei der Taube und beim Kalbe. Mittheilungen aus dem kaiserlichen Gesundheitsamte 2: 421–499.

Mazumdar PM (1995) Species and Specificity: An Interpretation of the History of Immunology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mendelsohn JA (1995) ‘Typhoid Mary’ strikes again: the social and the scientific in the making of modern public health. Isis 86: 268–277.

Mendelsohn JA (1996) Cultures of Bacteriology: Formation and Transformation of a Science in France and Germany, 1870–1914. Diss., Princeton University, Ann Arbor.

Mendelsohn JA (1998) From eradication to equilibrium: how epidemics became complex after World War I. In: Lawrence C and Weisz G (eds) Greater than the Parts: Holism in Biomedicine, 1920–1950, pp. 303–331. New York: Oxford University Press.

Méthot P‐O (2016) Bacterial transformation and the origins of epidemics in the interwar period: the epidemiological significance of Fred Griffith's “Transforming Experiment”. Journal of the History of Biology, 49: 311–358.

Méthot P‐O and Alizon S (2015) What is a pathogen? Toward a process view of host‐parasite interactions. Virulence 5: 775–785.

Moulin AM (1992) Patriarchal science: the network of the overseas Pasteur Institutes. In: Petijean P (ed) Science and Empires: Historical Studies about Scientific Development and European Expansion, pp. 307–322. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Müller OF (1786) Animalcula infusoria fluvia tilia et marina, quae detexit, systematice descripsit et ad vivum delineari curavit O.F. M. opus cura O. Fabricii, Copenhagen. https://archive.org/stream/animalculainfuso00ml#page/n449/mode/2up (accessed 21 June 2016).

O'Malley MA (2014) Philosophy of Microbiology, pp. 132–140. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pasteur L (1922–1939) Méthode pour prévenir la rage après morsure. Talk in Académie des sciences on 26.10.1885. In: Vallery‐Radot P (ed) Oeuvres de Pasteur, vol. 6, pp. 603–612. Paris: Masson et Cie.

Perty M (1852) Zur Kenntnis kleinster Lebensformen nach Bau, Funktion, Systematik, mit Specialverzeichnis der in der Schweiz beobachteten, Bern. http://www.europeana.eu/portal/record/9200386/BibliographicResource_3000045291549.html (accessed 21 June 2016).

Roux E (1903) Sur les microbes dit “invisibles”. Bulletin de l'Institut Pasteur 1: 7–12, 49–56.

Schlich T (1997) Repräsentationen von Krankheitserregern. Wie Robert Koch Bakterien als Krankheitsursache dargestellt hat. In: Rheinberger H‐J, Hagner M and Wahrig‐Schmidt B (eds) Räume des Wissens. Repräsentation, Codierung, Spur, pp. 165–190. Berlin: Akademie‐Verlag.

Steere‐Williams J (2015) Performing state‐medicine during its ‘Frustrating’ years: Epidemiology and bacteriology at the Local Government Board, 1870–1900. Social History of Medicine 28: 82–107.

Sturdy S (2011) Looking for trouble: Medical science and clinical practice in the historiography of modern medicine. Social History of Medicine 24: 739–757.

Tomes N (1998) The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wall R (2013) Bacteria in Britain, 1880–1939. London: Brookfield.

Weindling PJ (1992) Scientific elites and laboratory organisations in fin de siècle Paris and Berlin: The Pasteur Institute and Robert Koch's Institute for Infectious Diseases compared. In: Cunningham A and Williams P (eds) The Laboratory Revolution in Medicine, pp. 170–188. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weindling PJ (2000) Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe 1890–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Worboys M (2000) Spreading Germs: Disease Theories and Medical Practice in Britain 1865–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Worboys M (2007) Was there a bacteriological revolution in late nineteenth‐century medicine? Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38: 20–42.

Worboys M (2010) ‘The Wright Way’: the production and standardization of therapeutic vaccines in Britain, 1902–1913. In: Gradmann C and Simon J (eds) Evaluating and Standardizing Therapeutic Agents, 1890–1950, pp. 153–173. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.

ZoBell C (1946) Marine Microbiology: A Monograph of Hydrobacteriology. Walham, MA: Chronica Botanica Co.

Further Reading

Bulloch W (1938) The History of Bacteriology. London: Oxford University Press.

Collard P (1976) The Development of Microbiology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Foster WD (1970) A History of Medical Bacteriology and Immunology. London: Heinemann Medical.

Geison GL (1995) The Private Science of Louis Pasteur. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gradmann C (2009) Laboratory Disease. Robert Koch's Medical Bacteriology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

O'Malley MA (2014) Philosophy of Microbiology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wall R (2013) Bacteria in Britain, 1880–1939. London, Brookfield: Pickering & Chatoo.

Worboys M (2000) Spreading Germs. Disease Theories and Medical Practice in Britain, 1865–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Kreuder‐Sonnen, Katharina(Aug 2016) History of Bacteriology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003073.pub2]