The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page

The Discovery of the Germ By John Waller, Icon, £ 6.50

Well-written books on science aimed at the intelligent lay person are rare. They can, in fact, be counted on the fingers of one hand. Crick and Watson’s classic account of the discovery of the double helix and Simon Singh’s book on Fermat’s last theorem head the list in this genre. Waller’s retelling of perhaps the most far-reaching discovery in medicine is a valuable addition to this genre.

Waller narrates how between 1880 and 1900 the central role of germs in producing illness was for the first time decisively demonstrated. The consequence of this was that doctors in the West were forced to abandon misconceived ideas about the causes and the nature of disease. The understanding and diagnosis of illness underwent a profound change. According to Waller, the impact was revolutionary.

This achievement was driven by two fierecely competitive teams. One was led by the German scientist, Robert Koch, and the other by a Frenchman, Louis Pasteur. The experiments pioneered by these two scientists and their colleagues made the medical world of 1900 completely different from what it had been in 1880. The experiments showed that tiny germs, invisible to the naked eye, are the cause of infectious diseases. Pasteur and Koch established three things. One, that microbes can cause illnesses within the body. Two, that they can spread from one person to another. And third, that for each form of infectious disease, there is a specific microbial agent, i.e. in susceptible hosts, the same microbe will always produce the same disease.

The origins of this revolution lie, of course, in a revolution in the field of optics: the invention of the microscope. It was this instrument that allowed the scientists to discover that the world was teeming with microbial lives. Without the microscope, the simplest of experiments which led to the discovery of the germ would not have been possible.

Lest the impact of this discovery is underestimated, it led to safe surgery, large-scale vaccination programmes, the pasteurization of dairy products and dramatic improvements in hygiene and sanitation. It also laid the basis for the eventual emergence of life-saving antibiotic medicines. Thus, in more ways than we care to know or even imagine, the 20 years between 1880 and 1900 in the history of medicine have dramatically altered the way humans live their lives and survive.

Waller’s account offers vivid description and gripping insight.

Email This Page