Insights into the beginnings of microbiology

Pasteur Institute
Over the holidays I rediscovered a book I picked up in an antique shop a year or so ago called “Milestones in Microbiology”. I had assumed it was going to be a standard history book with lots of dates and names and events, but it turned out to be a collection of groundbreaking microbiology papers from the 16th century to the early 20th century – quite a special find for a microbiology student. Many of the papers included were written by familiar names such as Pasteur, Leeuwenhoek, Lister, Koch, Fleming and more, and the collection was compiled and translated by Thomas Brock (a familiar name to anyone who’s been set Brock’s Biology of Microorganisms as a first year text book!).

I’ve not yet read the whole collection, but having read the first few papers I’m very much sold. The early texts on the field of microbiology are not just intriguing but fairly accessible too. The style of writing is far less technical than today’s academic papers, as well as being in full prose (in those days journals didn’t have strict word limits). My favourite example of this so far is when Leeuwenhoek describes one of his test subjects as “a good fellow” a comment that would be branded unneccessary and completely aside from the point in today’s academic world!

It’s not often you get the chance to view groundbreaking scientific advances through the eyes of the scientists you get taught about in the textbooks. Reading the paper in which Leeuwenhoek first describes bacteria (or “little animals” as he calls them) feels like something of a privelege, as well as a trip back in time, so definately worth a read for anyone with an interest in the field. A more up to date version of the book seems to be available on Amazon or for University of Sheffield students there’s a few copies in Western Bank Library – enjoy!

On another note, if you’re interested in this sort of thing I’d also definately recommend a trip to the Pasteur museum in Paris. I visited it a few years ago whilst in Paris and like the papers mentioned above it’s a fascinating insight into the work of pioneering microbiologists. It’s a fairly understated part of the modern Pasteur Institute, with the museum situated in the building of the original Pasteur Institute. The museum contains plenty of scientific curiosities, such as Pasteur’s original experimental equipment, and documents his work from his early background in chemistry and stereoisomers up to his more famous vaccine and microbiological work. Finally on a less biological theme, the museum also contains Pasteur’s living quarters and crypt, which were also part of the original institute building!