The book Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif is a fascinating work describing the origins and the early foundational discoveries in the field of microbiology. The author describes little known details about the known and the unknown who played a significant role in the discovery of microbes and the development of microbiology as a science. These people whom he also refers to as “death fighters.”
The book begins with the story of Leeuwenhoek who is described as “unsung and scarce remembered”. While being singularly unimpressive for much of his life, he was fascinated by grinding lenses which one day lead to the idea of putting two lenses together in such a way that he made a microscope. The article describes his efforts to solve the problems of designing the microscope and of convincing members of the Royal Society and others that there is a microscopic world of living creatures. It is understandable that he might have a problem convincing some of the correctness of his observations because he was the owner of a dry-goods business who lacked the education and breeding of members of the Royal Society. Additional strikes against him were he was Dutch and he was stating that people had these microscopic creatures inside them, in their mouths, etc. How could someone of wealth and breeding have little creature in their mouth and the gut? What Leeuwenhoek had in his favor was an insatiable curiosity apparently seeing everything and everybody as a potential source for specimens.
He is followed in the book by Spallanzani who asserted simply that microbes must have parents. This was a time when the notion that life could arise spontaneously, without parents, was asserted by sensible and learned people. Perhaps his greatest insight came when, in repeating an experiment conducted by another, he determined that some small animals (microbes) were in the air contaminating the experiments. Again, like Leeuwenhoek, Spallanzani had to fight for what he found to be true. He fought against Needham who had seemed to prove the spontaneous origins of life and his colleague Button with a gift for writing were able to impress the scientific community sufficiently to become members the Royal Society and of the Academy of Sciences of Paris. Through diligence and careful experimentation he was able to debunk Needham’s assertions and himself became “considered…the first scientist of the day.”
Despite his initial skepticism he did not believe that microbes divided. But as with all his other efforts he carried out an experiment that enabled him to set aside his initial doubts.