19th century microbiology books

University of California-Davis professor and blogger Jonathan A. Eisen (“The Tree of Life” on blogspot) did some digging in Google Books and posted a list of 19th century books on microbiology (which at the time was mostly the study of bacteria as viruses hadn’t been discovered yet). If you have an interest in the history of science, or the evolution of humankind’s understanding of the microbial world, you’ll appreciate the easy access to these historical texts that a few years ago would’ve required a trip to the dusty depths of places like Harvard’s Widener Library.

Here’s a choice quote from The Bacteria, an 1880 English translation (by Army surgeon George Sternberg) of a French volume:

Front CoverIf the relation of these inferior organisms to the origin of living beings is yet obscure, their role in the preservation of life is better known. It is known that organic matter, once produced and become solid, so to speak, cannot again enter into the general current until it has undergone new transformations, metamorphoses produced, according to some savants, favored, according to others, but, without contradiction, accompanied by the development of bacteria; and, without wishing to attribute to these organisms a finality which is repugnant to our monistic conception of the universe, it may be said that it is thanks to them that the continuation of life is possible on the surface of the globe.

Go bacteria!  Did you ever read a more romantic description of rot?

You can also read about the role of bacteria in “virulent affections”, a delightfully dated list of ailments that are of blessedly limited clinical significance today: charbon (anthrax, now feared more as a potential bioweapon than an agricultural problem), variola (smallpox, now extinct in the wild thanks to a massive global vaccination campaign), scarlatina (scarlet fever, the scourge that killed The Velveteen Rabbit, now largely unknown thanks to penicillin), measles (alarmingly, on the rise thanks to vaccine refuseniks), glanders (like anthrax, a disease of livestock that could be weaponized), and farcy (apparently a variant of glanders?).

Interesting how diseases of livestock had so much greater significance to 19th century microbiologists than those of the present day, when the field of veterinary medicine is shrinking from its heroic roots keeping farmers alive and people fed, to a tidy, luxury service for urban domestic companion animals.

Finally, I thought this warning about reading published scientific results with a skeptical eye remains timely:

One great trouble which we have experienced in this country is in judging of the comparative value of the observations of different men who are equally unknown to us. A very plausible article may be written by a very careless observer; or a very cautious observer may fail to give confidence in his results, because of a certain degree of confusion in his language. When experiments are well devised, carefully executed, and described with precision, as is done by such men as Pasteur and Tyndall, we cannot fail to attach great weight to the conclusions reached. And when so accomplished a microscopist as Cohn or Koch asserts that he has seen such and such a thing, or has made such and such measurements, we cannot doubt the reliability of the observation. But sometimes we are deceived by giving credence to a man who has achieved reputation in one line of study, but of whose skill and training in the use of the microscope we have no means of judging. Such a man may be a great surgeon, or a great clinician, or a great chemist, and yet be a mere tyro with the microscope. When, then, we see it announced that Dr. So-and-so failed to discover anymicrococci in pus, in blood, or what not, taken from a certain source, we are justified in asking, — first, what power did the learned doctor use? second, is he capable of distinguishing micrococci in fluids which contain them beyond question? Or, if he does discover them, we may ask if he is accustomed to making a differential diagnosis between micrococci and inorganic granular material, or unorganized granules of organic origin. This is a decision which the most accomplished microscopist is sometimes unable to make, except by the aid of chemical tests and culture experiments.

 To avoid this want of confidence in results, which has naturally grown out of carelessly made observations and contradictory statements, it is desirable that full and minute details should be given of all observations and experiments made, and, whenever possible, that photomicographs should be made of all micro-organisms described, or of a thin stratum of a liquid asserted not to contain any; as, when a sufficiently high power is used, this settles the question of their presence or absence, beyond dispute, and enables other students to make comparisons and measurements which cannot fail to promote the interests of true science.

The National Board of Health of the United States has the credit of first adopting this method of recording the results of scientific investigation, in this direction, as a constant and unimpeachable record of what has been seen by the investigator. The commission sent to Havana last summer for the investigation of yellowfever, was instructed to pursue this method, and was accompanied by a photographer and supplied with all the necessary appliances for carrying these instructions into effect.

Apparently those methods worked. The expedition to Havana with famed Army scientist Walter Reed eventually identified the mode of transmission of yellow fever (via mosquito bites) and paved the way for eliminating the disease in the continental U.S.

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