The History of Microbiology

Before the invention of the microscope, the history of microbiology was pretty much nonexistent. When Robert Hooke, an English scientist, first developed the microscope for his scientific studies in the mid-1600s, he pushed the scientific foundation of microbiology toward an unbelievable future. His book, “Micrographia” had inspired a Dutch tradesman by the name of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who became so involved with the microscope that he made over 500 of them. Observing the “little animalicules”, he became the first to view bacteria under the microscope which opened up the world to the field of microbiology.


From this point on, a period of 200 years lapsed before much happened in the field of microbiology with the deadly disease smallpox bringing it to the forefront to save lives. Known as an extreme position in the scientific era of the time, the 1700 smallpox inoculations began to develop by cutting wounds into the limbs of smallpox victims with knives, forming large open wounds. Serum was then taken from the pus of smallpox victims and was pasted into these wounds of both local classes and royal families, slowly becoming successful enough to save a few lives.

This method came from the wife of a British Ambassador in Turkey, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who brought the smallpox method to England but unfortunately, the victim had to develop the full blown disease and occasionally would die. Eventually, a 39-year old English doctor by the name of Edward Jenner began working with the small pox vaccine which was killing one out of three victims, the first individual to scientifically study the disease and the vaccine he thought was its cure-where the pus from the disease was injected directly into healthy individuals.

Today Edward Jenner is known as the “father of immunology” and the “pioneer of the smallpox vaccination”, an individual starting out as a simple country doctor who began his successful smallpox study at this time. This lowly physician status caused him great ridicule in a world that consisted of huge prejudices from the conservatism of the arrogant medical world, but eventually his cure could not be denied.


As we all know, washing hands is the single most preventive weapon against the spread of disease and illness. But at one time in history, it was an unheard of technique. People died in large number of contagious diseases until 1840 when a Hungarian obstetrical doctor by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that a large number of his mothers were dying shortly after childbirth, known as “childbed fever”. The mothers who were dying were being cared for by physicians and male medical students, as compared to mothers dying four to five times less in a ward attended only by female midwifery students.

This discovery came about through routine autopsies being done by the male doctors and students, with one of Dr. Semmelweis’s friends being punctured by a scalpel, becoming sick with the same symptoms as the mothers after childbirth. The reason the individual did not die was because of his extreme health, but Dr. Semmelweis began to study the similarity between the two circumstances in an attempt to prevent “child-bed fever.” Hoping to better understand what the issue were surrounding their deaths, he began a strict hand washing policy among all physician colleagues and medical students in the first ward to begin his studies. But from that move alone, the mortality rates dropped from 18.3 percent to 1.3 percent, with no deaths occurring in six months.

Regardless, his hand washing approach was accepted with hostility and was dismissed as untrue. When he presented it to the Viennese Medical Society, it was rejected, but in 1860 he published his principal work on it under the subject of “puerperal sepsis”, which was dismissed also.


Compared to where we have been, the history of microbiology has taken a huge jump forward with the field of microbiology considered the “new kid on the block” of today. We know that microbiology is the study of microbes-their diversity and function in their natural environments but when we take the word apart it is pretty self-explanatory. “Micro” is small, tiny, extremely petite, and nothing is smaller than what can be seen under the microscope. “Biology” refers to the study of living organisms, of cell anatomy or human anatomy.

Further in depth, this anatomy can be seen in fungi, parasites, viruses, rickettsiae, anaerobic bacteria, aerobic bacteria, and spirochetes. A fascinating field over the years, microbiology helps us understand our diseases and how to stay healthy through being able to see different diseases and their structures, learning how washing hands can prevent diseases, etc. We are now able to look at cellular structure and the metabolism of microbes; microbial growth and its control-how can they survive, how their populations are measured, and how they die; microbial genetics-studying the exchange of genetic information, its recombinant DNA technology and biotechnology; taxonomy and the organization of microorganisms; eukaryotic microorganisms-their characteristics, ecological roles, and the classification of its major groups.

Another field of environmental microbiology involves symbioses, soil ecology, and the microbes in sustainable agriculture. Devoted to the study of environmental microbial processes, microbial communities and microbial interactions, it provides a high profile vehicle for current publications on the most innovative research in the microbiological field.

In the world today, based on the history of microbiology, studies are being done to look at normal human microbiota and the microbial causes of human infections-cancer and the causes of malignancies, such as infections as the cause of human cancers. But none of this could ever have been done without the work of another great pioneer, Louis Pasteur.


Before the work of Louis Pasteur began to be noticed, the myth of spontaneous generation was widely accepted from individuals going clear back to the days of Rome throughout the Middle Ages. This belief was an accepted general theory that life forms would arise spontaneously from all non-living matter, a theory that still exists today with the Biblical phrase, ” the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) It was through this thinking process that the split between two belief systems regarding creation and evolution has come into existence, theories that are very much at odds still.

Unfortunately, one specific recipe under this theory for the spontaneous production of mice involved the placement of sweaty underwear and husks of wheat into an open-mouth jar for a period of 21 days. The theory was that the sweat from the underwear would penetrate the wheat husks, transforming it into mice. Naturally, we know that mice would be attracted to the husks for feed and enter the jar voluntarily, where they would appear to be “transformed”, but the widely-held cultural and religious beliefs of the time thought otherwise. But Louis Pasteur actively challenged this theory of spontaneous generation, which brought forth the fields of biology and biochemistry, which set the scene for microbiology of today.

With so many widely diverse achievements that were responsible for his basic theoretical concepts and practical applications of modern science, according to author Seung Yon Rhee in his article, “Louis Pasteur (1822-1895),” “He is revered for possessing the most important qualities of a scientist: the ability to survey all the known data and link the data for all possible hypotheses, the patience and drive to conduct experiments under strictly controlled conditions, and the brilliance to uncover the road to the solution from the results.” Louis Pasteur was considered as contributing highly to humanity by solving many mysteries-silkworm diseases, development of the first vaccines, anthrax, rabies, chicken cholera, and scientific basis for the fermentation of beer brewing and wine-making.


History has brought us forward with enough knowledge about microbiology to ask questions like, “Does bacteria cause cancer?” or “Does H.I.V. really cause AIDS?” Other controversial issues are in regard to herbal drugs, with a recent one being that of KAVA, derived from a leafy plant native to the South Sea Islands. Implicated in liver diseases, it is also used to treat insomnia, stress, muscle spasms, and anxiety. Mad cow disease, or “Bovine spongiform Encephalopathy” (BSE), is offering up new findings of contamination making the evidence circumstantial against it, requiring more work. The list goes on, with more work to be done in the fields of microbiology before headlines should be printed against or for certain issues, as each side will always find proof for its standings.