MicrobiologyBytes: Introduction to Microbiology: History of Microbiology Updated: January 19, 2005 Search

A Brief History of Microbiology

Development of microscopy:

  • Aristotle (384-322) and others believed that living organisms could develop from non-living materials.
  • 1590: Hans and Zacharias Janssen (Dutch lens grinders) mounted two lenses in a tube to produce the first compound microscope.
  • 1660: Robert Hooke (1635-1703) published "Micrographia", containing drawings and detailed observations of biological materials made with the best compound microscope and illumination system of the time.
  • 1676: Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) was the first person to observe microorganisms.
  • 1883: Carl Zeiss and Ernst Abbe pioneered developments in microscopy (such as immersion lenses and apochromatic lenses which reduce chromatic aberration) which perist until the present day.
  • 1931: Ernst Ruska constructed the first electron microscope.

Spontaneous generation controversy:

This eventually led to:

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Proof that microbes cause disease:

1546: Hieronymus Fracastorius (Girolamo Fracastoro) wrote "On Contagion" ("De contagione et contagiosis morbis et curatione"), the the first known discussion of the phenomenon of contagious infection.
1835 Agostino Bassi de Lodi showed that a disease affecting silkworms was caused by a fungus - the first microorganism to be recognized as a contagious agent of animal disease.
1847: Ignaz Semmelweiss (1818-1865), a Hungarian physician who decided that doctors in Vienna hospitals were spreading childbed fever while delivering babies. He started forcing doctors under his supervision to wash their hands before touching patients.
1857: Louis Pasteur proposed the "germ theory" of disease.
1867: Joseph Lister (1827-1912) introduced antiseptics in surgery. By spraying carbolic acid on surgical instruments, wounds and dressings, he reduced surgical mortality due to bacterial infection considerably.
1876: Robert Koch (1843-1910). German bacteriologist was the first to cultivate anthrax bacteria outside the body using blood serum at body temperature. Building on pasteur's "germ theory", he subsequently published "Koch's postulates" (1884), the critical test for the involvement of a microorganism in a disease:
  1. The agent must be present in every case of the disease.
  2. The agent must be isolated and cultured in vitro.
  3. The disease must be reproduced when a pure culture of the agent is inoculated into a susceptible host.
  4. The agent must be recoverable from the experimentally-infected host.
This eventually led to:


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