The Discovery of the Germ: Twenty Years That Transformed The Way We Think About Disease / Edition 1

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From the time of Hippocrates to that of Louis Pasteur, the medical profession relied on plausible but almost wholly mistaken ideas about the causes of and best treatments for infectious illness. Bleeding, purging, and mysterious nostrums remained staple remedies, and surgeons, often wearing filthy butcher's aprons, blithely spread infection from patient to patient. Then between 1879 and 1900 came the germ revolution. After two decades of scientific virtuosity, outstanding feats of intellectual courage, bitter personal rivalries, and a large dose of good fortune, doctors came to realize infectious diseases are caused by microscopic organisms. The discovery of the germ led to safe surgery, large-scale vaccination programs, dramatic improvements in hygiene and sanitation, and the pasteurization of dairy products. Above all, it set the stage for the emergence of antibiotic medicine.

John Waller provides insight into twenty years in the history of medicine that profoundly changed the way we view disease. He shows how the germ revolution was made possible not only by the risk taking and raw ambition of several brilliant late-century pioneers, but also by the groundwork -- including mistakes and near misses -- of earlier generations of scientists. Rich in human drama, The Discovery of the Germ charts how, why, and by whom germ theory was transformed from a hotly disputed speculation to a central tenet of modern medicine. It examines the ideas and experiments of the giants of microbiology, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, as well as less well known figures such as Casimir-Joseph Davaine, Waldemar Haffkine, and Almroth Wright.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews


Waller skillfully tells the tale of mankind surfacing to scientific and medical enlightenment after millennia spent in a cave: little book, big story.


Waller presents a new telling of an old tale.... The development of the germ theory was hardly linear; fields as diverse as agriculture, sericulture, or surgery contributed necessary pieces. Walter handles these diverse threads and weaves a coherent narrative out of them.... Highly recommended.

Science Books and Films

[A]n excellent read for a general audience and packs a lot of information on the beginnings of the microbiology of disease.

large in human drama...It is a history book that reads like a novel. Highly recommended for all academic libraries

— Jitka Hurych

This engaging book reads as a success story of scientific progress.

— Marjorie C. Malley

Science Books & Films

[A]n excellent read for a general audience and packs a lot of information on the beginnings of the microbiology of disease.

E-Streams - Jitka Hurych

large in human drama...It is a history book that reads like a novel. Highly recommended for all academic libraries

ISIS - Marjorie C. Malley

This engaging book reads as a success story of scientific progress.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231131506
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/2003
  • Series: Revolutions in Science Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 1,079,945
  • Product dimensions: 4.82 (w) x 7.02 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

John Waller is a research fellow at University College London's Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine. He is the author of Fabulous Science: Fact and Fiction in the History of Scientific Discovery.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Revolutionary 1
Pt. I Before the Germ 7
1 The World According to William Brownrigg 9
Pt. II The Germs of Revolution, 500 B.C.-1850 A.D. 23
2 Arsenals of Death 25
3 Contagious Effluvia 30
4 Leeuwenhock's 'Little Animals' 36
5 Revolutionary in Paris 43
6 Dirt, Disease and Decay 51
7 The End of the Beginning 66
Pt. III Cue, Louis Pasteur 73
8 Two Duels 75
9 The English Disciple 89
Pt. IV Worms, Chickens and Sheep 95
10 The Plight of the Silkworm 97
11 Anthrax 103
Pt. V Koch's Postulates 121
12 1881: Potatoes and Postulates 123
Pt. VI The Four Big Ones, 1881-1899 133
13 The White Plague 135
14 Cholera, Suez and Pettenkofer 144
15 Pasteur's Gatekeeper 160
16 Typhoid Fever 173
Conclusion: A New Science 187
Bibliography and Further Reading 193
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