How to Be a Genius: Tool #11

Consider what it would have been like to be a scientist working before Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, and others formalized germ theory in the 1860s and 1870s.

Microscopy had been available since 1670 when Anton Van Leeuwenhoek visualized cells within plants and animals and discovered bacteria. But what did the presence of such bacteria mean? Today, of course, we would immediately know that the microorganisms within diseased tissues were pathogenic agents. Yet scientists working prior to the development of germ theory had no frame for such an interpretation. Instead, they were steeped in the idea of bacterial spontaneous generation. If bacteria mysteriously arose in fetid meat, wouldn’t the same agents simply arise without a source in human organs? Only after Pasteur and Koch established that specific diseases are caused by specific bacteria did scientists and clinicians have a frame for understanding the genesis and spread of infectious diseases. Before that revolutionary innovation, disease seemed to appear out of nowhere and thus could never be prevented. Afterward, Joseph Lister spearheaded antisepsis.


Genius Unmasked, by Roberta Ness (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Science Uncovered

Articles and excerpts from Oxford University Press that lift the lid on science, technology, and innovation.

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Science Uncovered

Articles and excerpts from Oxford University Press that lift the lid on science, technology, and innovation.