While the ancients may have suspected the existence of invisible “minute creatures,” it wasn’t until the invention of the microscope that their existence was definitively confirmed. While it is unclear who exactly invented the microscope, a Dutch cloth merchant named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) was the first to develop a lens powerful enough to view microbes. In 1675, using a simple but powerful microscope, Leeuwenhoek was able to observe single-celled organisms, which he described as “animalcules” or “wee little beasties,” swimming in a drop of rain water. From his drawings of these little organisms, we now know he was looking at bacteria and protists.
Nearly 200 years after van Leeuwenhoek got his first glimpse of microbes, the “Golden Age of Microbiology” spawned a host of new discoveries between 1857 and 1914. Two famous microbiologists, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, were especially active in advancing our understanding of the unseen world of microbe. Pasteur, a French chemist, showed that individual microbial strains had unique properties and demonstrated that fermentation is caused by microorganisms. He also invented pasteurization, a process used to kill microorganisms responsible for spoilage, and developed vaccines for the treatment of diseases, including rabies, in animals and humans. Koch, a German physician, was the first to demonstrate the connection between a single, isolated microbe and a known human disease. For example, he discovered the bacteria that cause anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), cholera (Vibrio cholera), and tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis).
As microbiology has developed, it has allowed the broader discipline of biology to grow and flourish in previously unimagined ways. Much of what we know about human cells comes from our understanding of microbes, and many of the tools we use today to study cells and their genetics derive from work with microbes.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology