Bacteria As Plants

( Originally Published 1897 )

DURING the last fifteen years the subject of bacteriology has developed with a marvellous rapidity. At the beginning of the ninth decade of the century bacteria were scarcely heard of outside of scientific circles, and very little was known about them even among scientists. To-day they are almost household words, and every-one who reads is beginning to recognise that they have important relations to his everyday life. The organisms called bacteria comprise simply a small class of low plants, but this small group has proved to be of such vast importance in its relation to the world in general that its study has little by little crystallized into a science by itself. It is a somewhat anomalous fact that a special branch of science, interesting such a large number of people, should be developed around a small group of low plants. The importance of bacteriology is not due to any importance bacteria have as plants or as members of the vegetable kingdom, but solely to their powers of producing profound changes in Nature. There is no one family of plants that begins to compare with them in importance. It is the object of this work to point out briefly how much both of good and ill we owe to the life and growth of these microscopic organisms. As we have learned more and more of them during the last fifty years, it has become more and more evident that this one little class of microscopic plants fills a place in Nature's processes which in some respects balances that filled by the whole of the green plants. Minute as they are, their importance can hardly be overrated, for upon their activities is founded the continued life of the animal and vegetable kingdom. For good and for ill they are agents of neverceasing and almost unlimited powers.


The study of bacteria practically began with the use of the microscope. It was toward the close of the seventeenth century that the Dutch microscopist, Leeuwenhoek, working with his simple lenses, first saw the organisms which we now know under this name, with sufficient clearness to describe them. Beyond mentioning their existence, however, his observations told little or nothing. Nor can much more be said of the studies which followed during the next one hundred and fifty years. During this long period many a microscope was turned to the observation of these minute organisms, but the majority of observers were contented with simply seeing them, marvel-ling at their minuteness, and uttering many exclamations of astonishment at the wonders of Nature. A few men of more strictly scientific natures paid some attention to these little organisms. Among them we should perhaps mention Von Gleichen, Muller, Spallanzani, and Needham. Each of these, as well as others, made some contributions to our knowledge of microscopical life, and among other organisms studied those which we now call bacteria. Speculations were even made at these early dates of the possible causal connection of these organisms with diseases, and for a little the medical profession was interested in the suggestion. It was impossible then, however, to obtain any evidence for the truth of this speculation, and it was abandoned as unfounded, and even forgot-ten completely, until revived again about the middle of the 19th century. During this century of wonder a sufficiency of exactness was, how-ever, introduced into the study of microscopic organisms to call for the use of names, and we find Müller using the naines of Monas, Proteus, Vibrio, Bacillus, and Spirillum, names which still continue in use, although commonly with a different significance from that given them by Müller. Müller did indeed make a study sufficient to recognise the several distinct types, and attempted to classify these bodies. They were not regarded as of much importance, but simply as the most minute organisms known.

Nothing of importance came from this work, however, partly because of the inadequacy of the microscopes of the day, and partly because of a failure to understand the real problems at issue. When we remember the minuteness of the bacteria, the impossibility of studying any one of them for more than a few moments at a time—only so long, in fact, as it can be followed under a microscope; when we remember, too, the imperfection of the compound microscopes which made high powers practical impossibilities ; and, above all, when we appreciate the looseness of the ideas which pervaded all scientists as to the necessity of accurate observation in distinction from inference, it is not strange that the last century gave us no knowledge of bacteria beyond the mere fact of the existence of some extremely minute organisms in different decaying materials. Nor did the 19th century add much to this until toward its middle. It is true that the microscope was vastly improved early in the century, and since this improvement served as a decided stimulus to the study of microscopic life, among other organisms studied, bacteria received. some attention. Ehrenberg, Dujardin, Fuchs, Perty, and others left the impress of their work upon bacteriology even before the middle of the century. It is true that Schwann shrewdly drew conclusions as to the relation of microscopic organisms to various processes of fermentation and decay—conclusions which, al-though not accepted at the time, have subsequently proved to be correct. It is true that Fuchs made a careful study of the infection of " blue milk," reaching the correct conclusion that the infection was caused by a microscopic organ-ism which he discovered and carefully studied. It is true that Henle made a general theory as to the relation of such organisms to diseases, and pointed out the logically necessary steps in a demonstration of the causal connection between any organism and a disease. It is true also that a general theory of the production of ail kinds of fermentation by living organisms had been advanced. But all these suggestions made little impression. On the one hand, bacteria were not recognised as a class of organisms by themselves -were not, indeed, distinguished from yeasts or other minute animalculæ. Their variety was not mistrusted and their significance not conceived. As microscopic organisms, there were no reasons for considering them of any more importance than any other small animals or plants, and their extreme minuteness and simplicity made them of little interest to the microscopist. On the other hand, their causal connection with fermentative and putrefactive processes was entirely obscured by the overshadowing weight of the chemist Lie-big, who believed that fermentations and putrefactions were simply chemical processes. Liebig insisted that all albuminoid bodies were in a state of chemically unstable equilibrium, and if left to themselves would fall to pieces without any need of the action of microscopic organisms. The force of Liebig's authority and the brilliancy of his expositions led to the wide acceptance of his views and the temporary obscurity of the relation of microscopic organisms to fermentative and putrefactive processes. The objections to Liebig's views were hardly noticed, and the force of the experiments of Schwann was silently ignored. Until the sixth decade of the century, therefore, these organisms, which have since be-come the basis of a new branch of science, had hardly emerged from obscurity. A few microscopists recognised their existence, just as they did any other group of small animals or plants, but even yet they failed to look upon them as forming a distinct group. A growing number of observations was accumulating, pointing toward a probable causal connection between fermentative and putrefactive processes and the growth of microscopic organisms ; but these observations were known only to a few, and were ignored by the majority of scientists.

It was Louis Pasteur who brought bacteria to the front, and it was by his labours that these organisms were rescued from the obscurity of scientific publications and made objects of general and crowning interest. It was Pasteur who first successfully combated the chemical theory of fermentation by showing that albuminous matter had no inherent tendency to decomposition. It was Pasteur who first clearly demonstrated that these little bodies, like all larger animals and plants, come into existence only by ordinary methods of reproduction, and not by any spontaneous generation, as had been earlier claimed. It was Pasteur who first proved that such a common phenomenon as the souring of milk was produced by microscopic organisms growing in the milk. It was Pasteur who first succeeded in demonstrating that certain species of microscopic organisms are the cause of certain diseases, and in suggesting successful methods of avoiding them. All these discoveries were made in rapid succession. Within ten years of the time that his name began to be heard in this connection by scientists, the subject had advanced so rapidly that it had become evident that here was a new subject of importance to the scientific world, if not to the public at large. The other important discoveries which Pasteur made it is not our pur-pose to mention here. His claim to be considered the founder of bacteriology will be recognised from what has already been mentioned. It was not that he first discovered the organisms, or first studied them; it was not that he first suggested their causal connection with fermentation and disease, but it was because he for the first time placed the subject upon a firm foundation by proving with rigid experiment some of the suggestions made by others, and in this way turned the attention of science to the study of micro-organisms.

After the importance of the subject had been demonstrated by Pasteur, others turned their attention in the same direction, either for the pur-pose of verification or refutation of Pasteur's views. The advance was not very rapid, however, since bacteriological experimentation proved to be a subject of extraordinary difficulty. Bacteria were not even yet recognised as a group of organ-isms distinct enough to be grouped by themselves, but were even by Pasteur at first confounded with yeasts. As a distinct group of organisms they were first distinguished by Hoffman in 1869, since which date the term bacteria, as applying to this special group of organisms, has been coming more and more into use. So difficult were the investigations, that for years there were hardly any investigators besides Pasteur who could successfully handle the subject and reach conclusions which could stand the test of time. For the next thirty years, although investigators and investigations continued to increase, we can find little besides dispute and confusion along this line. The difficulty of obtaining for experiment any one kind of bacteria by itself, unmixed with others (pure cultures), rendered advance almost impossible. So conflicting were the results that the whole subject soon came into almost hopeless confusion, and very few steps were taken upon any sure basis. So difficult were the methods, so contradictory and confusing the results, because of impure cultures, that a student of today who wishes to look up the previous discoveries in almost any line of bacteriology need hardly go back of 1880, since he can almost rest assured that anything done earlier than that was more likely to be erroneous than correct.

The last fifteen years have, however, seen a wonderful change. The difficulties had been mostly those of methods of work, and with the ninth decade of the century these methods were simplified by Robert Koch. This simplification of method for the first time placed this line of investigation within the reach of scientists who did not have the genius of Pasteur. It was now possible to get pure cultures easily, and to obtain with such pure cultures results which were uni-form and simple. It was now possible to take steps which had the stamp of accuracy upon them, and which further experiment did not disprove. From the time when these methods were thus made manageable the study of bacteria in-creased with a rapidity which has been fairly startling, and the information which has accumulated is almost formidable. The very rapidity with which the investigations have progressed has brought considerable confusion, from the fact that the new discoveries have not had time to be properly assimilated into knowledge. To-day many facts are known whose significance is still uncertain, and a clear logical discussion of the facts of modern bacteriology is not possible. But sufficient knowledge has been accumulated and digested to show us at least the direction along which bacteriological advance is tending, and it is to the pointing out of these directions that the following pages will be devoted.

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