History of Microbiology


History of Microbiology

Microbiology is the study of the structure, bodily functions and physiological processes of microorganisms. It deals not only with the structural diversity and classification of microorganisms but also covers the whole range of microbial life. The study of microbiology expands its scope to both prokaryotic (no true nucleus and no membrane bound organelles) and eukaryotic (have true nucleus and membrane bound organelles) organisms[1].  The history of microbiology starts from the 16th century even before the invention of the microscope.

The word microbiology comes from the Greek words micro which means “small or minute”, and logos which means “study of”. Hence, microbiology in broad terms is the scientific study of microorganisms. Microbiology has numerous sub-fields and these include phycology (algae), virology (virus),  mycology (fungi), bacteriology (bacteria), protozoology (protozoans), and medical microbiology (pathogenic microorganisms)[2].

History of Microbiology

Microbiology History - A Timeline

During the 16th Century

  • Girolamo Fracastoro1546 Prior to the invention of the microscope, the study of microbiology was pioneered by Girolamo Fracastoro when he proposed the theory of contagious diseases[3].

During the 17th Century

  • Early 17th century The debate of Spontaneous Generation (theory that believed that life developed from non-living material) began.
  • 1660s Francesco Redi demonstrated that maggots resulted from flies laying eggs on rotting meat and not by spontaneous generation[3].
  • 1665 The very first microscope was invented by Robert Hooke. Because of this, Robert Hooke was the first one to have a close look of a cell appears to be and he published his description in his However, Hooke’s observations showed no features of the nucleus and other organelles that are usually found in most living cells[4].
  • 1674 Using a microscope, Anton van Leeuwenhoek witnessed a live cell.

During the 18th Century

  • 1740 to 1776 The debate over Spontaneous Generation continued.John Needham and Lazzaro Spallanzani performed experiments involving spontaneous generation.
  • Edward Jenner1798 Edward Jenner helped developed a vaccine for smallpox[3]. Learn more about smallpox and vaccination from here.

During 19th Century

  • Louis Pasteur's Germ theory
    Source: Wikimedia

    1839 Theodor Schwann also examined the idea of spontaneous generation, which eventually led to its disproof. In the course of his experiments, he discovered the organic nature of yeast. In fact, Louis Pasteur’s Germ theory, as well as its antiseptic applications by Joseph Lister, can be traced back to Schwann’s influence.

  • 1861 Louis Pasteur introduced the terms “aerobic” and “anaerobic” in describing the growth of yeast at the outlay of sugar in the presence or absence of oxygen. He observed that more alcohol was produced in the absence of oxygen when sugar is fermented. The phenomenon was later termed the Pasteur Effect.
    The terms “biogenesis” (life comes only from pre-existing life) and “abiogenesis” (life comes from nonliving materials, and what had previously been called spontaneous generation) as used by Huxley in this speech have become the standard terms for the discussion of how life originated[2].
  • Armauer Hansen1868 Based on his epidemiological studies, Armauer Hansen demonstrated that certain rods represented the infectious origin of leprosy. This is the first time that a chronic infectious disease in humans was shown to be related to Bacillus.
  • 1875 In the publication Ueber Bakterien, Ferdinand Cohn discussed the role of microorganisms in the sequencing of elements in nature. In 1875, Cohn published for the first time an early classification of bacteria, using the genus name, Bacillus[2].
  • Robert Koch1876 Robert Koch published a paper on his work with anthrax. This pointed to a bacterium as the cause of this disease and this validated the germ theory of disease.
  • John Tyndall1877 John Tyndall published a method for fractional sterilization and clarifies the role of heat resistant factors (spores) in putrefaction.The process of lactic acid fermentation of milk was discovered by Joseph Lister, His research was conducted using the very first method developed for the isolation of a pure culture of a bacterium[5].
  • 1885 This is the breakthrough for the establishment of protection against disease by the inoculation of a weakened strain of the causative agent. Louis Pasteur developed the “attenuation” of a virulent pathogen, the agent of chicken cholera. Pasteur used the word “attenuated” to mean “weakened“. As Pasteur recognized, the concept first came from Jenner’s success at smallpox vaccination.
  • 1881 In his book, Methods for the Study of Pathogenic Organisms, Robert Koch described his success with solidified culture media.The dye methylene blue was used in bacteriological staining[2]. The use of agar as a solidifying agent in the preparation of solid media was done for the first time. Because of its ability to resist digestion by bacterial enzymes and to remain solid at temperatures up to 100 degrees centigrade, it soon replaced gelatin as a solidifying agent for growing bacteria.
  • 1882 Robert Koch isolated Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium which causes tuberculosis. The search for the tubercule bacillus was more difficult than was the search for the cause of anthrax.The concept of phagocytosis was discovered when certain body cells go to the areas where they tend to “eat” or “consume” bacteria and other particles[3].The process of staining bacteria (Gram stain) with relevant dyes to reveal their structures for the purposes of identification was developed by Hans Christian Gram. Not long after, the distinction is correlated with other structural and biochemical differences.For the first time, the term “virus” which originally meant “poison” was used by Pasteur. Despite this, he had no idea about the mechanism of infection of the organism. It was discovered that antibodies are responsible for immunity.
  • Dmitri Ivanowski1892 The first evidence of the filterability of a pathogenic agent, the virus of tobacco mosaic disease, was given by Dmitri Ivanowski. His work had launched the emergence of virology[3].

The 20th Century up to the present

  • Early 1900s, Microbial growth factor, or the necessary requirements for bacterial growth, was discovered. Environmental factors that affect growth and sources of metabolic energy are examples of microbial growth factor[5].
  • Sohngen1906 N. L. Sohngen discovered methane-utilizing and methane-producing bacteria. This study supported the claim that methane can be used both carbon source and energy.
  • Paul Ehrlich1910 Paul Ehrlich discovered the cure (Salvarsan) for the disease syphilis. In the field of medicine, this was the first specific chemotherapeutic agent for a disease caused by a bacterium.
  • 1915 Bacteriophage was discovered.The process of analyzing water samples from coliforms with the use of the Most Probable Number and Multiple-tube fermentation test was introduced[1].The difference between bacteria and viruses was established. This resulted to the emergence of virology as a sub-field of microbiology.
  • Frederick Griffith1928 Frederick Griffith discovered bacterial transformation and this established the foundation of molecular genetics.
  • 1929 Alexander Fleming published the effects of penicillin on Gram positive organisms[1].
  • 1946 The process of conjugation in bacteria was discovered (see PDF here) . The proof is based on the generation of daughter cells able to grow in media that cannot support growth of either of the parent cells. This type of transfer however requires direct contact between bacteria.
  • 1993 The process of Polymerase Chain Reaction was introduced by Kary Mullis. This technique is used to produce multiple copies of a segment of a DNA in just a short period of time[6]. See the animation here.
  • In 20th century, microbiology developed from the angle of other disciplines of biological sciences in such a way so that problems of cell structure to the evolution are solved. Although, more emphasis were laid down on the agents of infectious disease, the immune response, chemotherapeutic agents and bacterial metabolism[1].


[1] – Microbiology in 20th Century. 2011. Link (accessed July 21, 2016).
[2]Introduction to Microbiology. 2016. Link (accessed July 21, 2016).
[3] – Microbiology, American Society For. Significant Events in Microbiology 1861-1999. 2006. Link (accessed july 21, 2016).
[4] – Rhoads, Dan. History of Cell Biology. 2007. Link (accessed July 22, 2016).
[5] – genbacteriology. Bacterial Growth. 2015. Link (accessed July 22, 2016).
[6] – Utah.edu. PCR. 2016. Link (accessed July 22, 2016).

  • Bisceglia, N. Cell Biology. 2016. www.nature.com/scitable/topic/cell-biology-13906536 (accessed July 22, 2016).
  • Innes, Centre John. Microscopy. 2016. https://www.jic.ac.uk/microscopy/intro_EM.html (accessed July 22, 2016).
  • Mikell, Meredith. Understanding Cell Biology: History & Theories. 2003. http://study.com/academy/lesson/understanding-cell-biology-history-theories.html (accessed July 22, 2016).
  • Pasteur, L. “”Animalcules infusoires vivant sans gaz oxygene libre et determinant des fermentations.”.” Compt. Rend. Acad. Sci., 1861: 344-347.
  • Pray, L. “Discovery of DNA Structure and Function: Watson and Crick.” Nature Education, 2009: 100-101
Cite this article as: JK, "History of Microbiology," in Bio Explorer, August 19, 2016, http://www.bioexplorer.net/history_of_biology/microbiology/.