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Chapter 18 : Infectious Diseases: History of the “Germ Theory”

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Infectious Diseases: History of the “Germ Theory”, Page 1 of 2

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Abstract:

This chapter deals with the history of communicable disease in the ancient world and with several pioneers of infectious disease research. Throughout the ages, human communities have been subject to the onset of devastating plagues and pestilences. Major episodes are described in considerable detail in numerous records of the past, as far back as 3000 B.C., so it is no surprise that the Bible refers to many different diseases. Reliable historical accounts detail the ravages of pestilences and plagues over the past two thousand years. The plagues and pestilences were, of course, caused by microscopic parasites such as bacteria, fungi, and other "invisible" biological agents. Before 1676 the existence of invisible microbes was undreamt of, and the idea would have been considered a fantastic notion to most people. How then did the germ theory of infectious disease originate and develop? The usual, and erroneous, answer is that the theory was the creation of Louis Pasteur. Students of the history of biological science are taught that the first really perceptive insights into the nature of infectious disease were advanced by the Italian Girolamo Fracastoro (ca. 1478–1553). The plague is an infectious disease that can take several forms, depending on the properties of the particular strain of the causative microbe. If the bacteria localize in the lung, the disease is called pneumonic plague.

Citation: Gest H. 2003. Infectious Diseases: History of the “Germ Theory”, p 117-123. In Microbes. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817855.ch18
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Figure 29

(a) Agostino Bassi, founder of the germ theory of infectious disease. (b, next page) The title page of Bassi's 1835 publication on the muscardine disease of silkworms, in which he identified a fungus as the causative agent. He suggested that the disease could be eliminated by preventing microbial contamination of worms, disinfecting worm-breeding rooms, and sterilizing implements and equipment. Disinfectants he suggested included caustic potash lye, nitric acid, and spirits of wine or crude brandy.

Citation: Gest H. 2003. Infectious Diseases: History of the “Germ Theory”, p 117-123. In Microbes. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817855.ch18
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