Whenever man kind has spread its claws and tentacles into others, they have always spread diseases, taken the indigenous population, forced them to their own way of life and subjugated the masses to religion. Native populations that had no contact with certain diseases had no immunological defenses against them. Before microbiology was established, pathogenic microbes often controlled human events, often creating epidemics that caused social and political change as well as untold human suffering.
Some examples of microbes and disease in history:
The bubonic plague or black death killed 25 million, one third of the population, in Europe’s middle ages. The cause was unknown for 500 years until 1890 when microbiologists identified the cause to be the Yersinia pestis bacterium carried by infected fleas which bit rats and humans.
The Irish Potato Famine did not occur by bacteria but by a fungus (Phytophtgora infestans) that infected potatoes, a stable of the Irish diet, and caused them to rot. An estimated 1.2 million died of starvation and hunger-based diseased and an additional 1.2 million emigrated to the USA.
If you look at the conquest of the Americas, Hernando Cortez invaded Mexico in 1519, causing the Native American population of 25-30 million to dwindle to 3 million within 50 years due to the intolerance of smallpox and measles.
We could find an example of biological warfare when Britain invaded America. Small pox laden blankets were purposely given to Native Americans to kill them. Another example was when the French attacked Naples in 1495, Neapolitans sent syphilis-infected prostitutes to entertain French troops, many of whom became terribly ill, subsequently falling to the ravages of syphilis.
The Early Giants of Microbiology
“Luck exists when opportunity meets preparation.”
What the quote above is basically saying is that when an opportunity presents itself but you don’t have the training and aptitude, you’re not going to recognize the opportunity. This is also known as serendipity. All the following individuals helped shape microbiology. All of them had the creativity to look at things in a totally different viewpoint or perspective. Before microbiology, scientists said “spontaneous genesis” was how life came about or in other words, that life came from inanimate objects.
An the 17th century an Italian physician, Francesco Redi took a jar, put some meat in it and left it uncovered and then noticed there were maggots in the meat. The meat was nonliving, the maggots are living, so there, that’s spontaneous genesis. But he didn’t accept that. He put a piece of gauze over the jar with the meat which prevented the flies from getting into the meat and so there were no maggots. Spontaneous genesis didn’t explain how the maggots formed. This led to biogenesis which says all life comes from preexisting life forms. Of course this is now accepted as the explanation for the origin of life. Life started with bacteria and there’s a strong line of evidence for it. Bacteria are the original inhabitants of the Earth. We are all descendants of bacteria.
Antoine Van Leeuwenhoek is widely regarded as the first to observe microorganisms with his creation of a microscope.
Louis Pasteur disproved spontaneous generation and finally convinced Europeans that biogenesis was the way things worked. He proved that fermentation occurred due to living organisms and pasteurization (PASTEUR) killed them.
Robert Koch led some of the pivotal discoveries such as proving that specific microorganisms cause specific diseases and creating the ability to create pure cultures using agar. He found out that gelatin worked best to create a colony but it wasn’t until his neighbor, Frau Hesse, recommended he add agar to thicken the mixture that it became an ideal, nutrient-rich surface that remained solid up to 100° C.
Edward Jenner had always been fascinated by the rural old wives tale that milkmaids could not get smallpox. He believed that there was a connection between the fact that milkmaids only got a weak version of smallpox – the non-life threatening cowpox – but did not get smallpox itself. As a result, he eventually created the smallpox vaccine.
Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the cause of child-bed fever (puerperal sepsis) was from a lack of handwashing. Only male doctors existed before and when the concept of midwives were created, they noticed midwives would have a much lower mortality rate when delivering babies. When Ignaz’s friend died from child-bed fever after a scalpel wound, he realized the connection: Male doctors would walk from the autopsy room and go straight to the birthing room without washing their hands. The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed. So they simply said you have to wash your hands with carboxylic acid after you leave the autopsy room and the mortality rate dropped nearly to zero. For the record, currently 40-60% of healthcare professionals don’t wash their hands routinely.
Paul Ehrlich first suggested the concept of selective toxicity: using chemicals (toxins) to target microorganisms without killing the host, known as the father of chemotherapy.
Joseph Lister introduced the use of antiseptics. He wrapped a phenol-soaked-bandage around James Greenlees compound fractures (dirty wounds) and found it successful at preventing infection and putrefaction (foul-smelling products). He called his phenol technique antisepsis, meaning “against infection.”
Elie Metchnikoff realized that the process of digestion in micro-organisms was essentially the same as that carried out by white blood cells (phagocytosis).
Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. How? He left culture plates out on a weekend and noticed there was fungi incubating. He noticed the fungi was inhibiting the growth of bacteria around it. The fungi was penicillin. It took almost another 30 years to make penicillin commercially viable.
Carl Woese discovered archaebacteria in the 1970’s. They look like bacteria in the sense that they are unicellular and prokaryotic but the biggest difference was that they were able to live in hostile environments that would be deadly to most living things. These archaebacteria lived in a world when the Earth had a different temperature and atmosphere. No archaea are human pathogens.
Dimitri Iwanowski discovered the existence of viruses and is considered the founder of modern virology.
Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin determined the structure of DNA.
Stanley Prusiner discovered prions, a class of infectious self-reproducing pathogens primarily or solely composed of protein and cause neurological disorders in animals.
Luc Montaigner sent samples to Robert Gallo and claimed to have discovered HIV. They had a big fight for 10 years and then decided to just share the fame together.
Craig Venter was instrumental in sequencing the human genome. He also sequenced an entire bacteria and was able to create a new organism by substituting genes with other genes. He’s now president of Celera Genomics and he’s moved on from genomics to proteomics (the study of proteins and how they act and influence things).
Kary Mullis ushered in a new diagnosis improving upon the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique which “amplified” DNA so one could see if DNA samples match up, for which he won a Nobel prize. He also writes that if he never had taken LSD that he would not have figured out the technique.