From Elephant to Bacterium: Microbes, Microbiologists, and the Chemical Order of Nature


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships


History of Science


This historical study reconstructs how early twentieth-century microbiologists employed pure cultures of microbes to analyze nutrition, metabolism, and growth in chemical terms. Comparative studies of microorganisms helped elucidate the chemical order of nature, and researchers began to see life as an essentially unified phenomenon, composed modularly from a finite number of common molecular building blocks. Around mid-century, this view of life culminated in the ubiquitous use of the bacterium E. coli as an experimental stand-in for a generic cell. The bacterium had become a proxy for life itself. In a series of case studies on the careers of microbiologists working in laboratories in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and the United States, this project reconstructs how the radical shift in the status of microbial life happened and interrogates its enduring consequences for the way that scientists and laypeople define and understand life.