One could argue that we as a society are more cautious about germs than ever before. We wear masks, carry hand sanitizer and wash our hands frequently as an attempt to stave off the virus wreaking havoc on our world. Despite our precautions germs are so small and sneaky that they creep into our bodies without being noticed. Humans have come a long way in terms of how we treat germs. It seems impossible that people once believed that foul odors could create disease or that evil spirits could cause a person to become dangerously ill. We have also forgotten how rare it was for parents to see their children survive to adulthood. Progress in modern science has paved the way for the medical advancements we see today. Let’s take a brief glimpse into the history of modern “germ theory” and how we arrived at where we are today.
So what is “germ theory”? Developed in the late 19th century by microbiologist Louis Pasteur, English surgeon Joseph Lister, and German physician Robert Koch, germ theory is described as a medical theory stating that certain diseases are caused by the invasion of the body by microorganisms, organisms too small to be seen except through a microscope. Prior to this finding no one knew the cause of infections or how they were spread, although there were many theories. Though these three scientists never directly worked together they were all on the same page about the source of infection. With the discovery of germs lead to development of safe surgical practices.
Joseph Lister was the first man to develop an antiseptic technique after the discovery of germs. Antisepsis is the destruction or inhibition of microorganisms on living tissues, thereby limiting or preventing the harmful results of infection. Not everyone trusted Lister’s method at first and disregarded his work as a scam. However, as the number of surgery related infections fell, the evidence that antisepsis success became irrefutable and it was widely accepted by surgeons around the world. Wider acceptance of germ theory resulted in the emergence of the science of bacteriology, and new research revealed that antiseptics were not the only way to control infection.
The discipline of bacteriology evolved from the need of physicians to test and apply the germ theory of disease. Bacteriology is a branch of microbiology that deals with the study of bacteria.Thorough study has allowed researchers in the field to not only get a better understanding of bacteria and their characteristics,but also how to prevent and manage diseases caused by these organisms. Robert Koch, as previously mentioned, played a large role in the growth of bacteriology. His discoveries ushered in a ‘golden age’ of scientific discovery and a new era of public health. Koch developed techniques that allowed him to observe changes in bacteria over time, and he was the first person able to link specific bacteria to a disease.
The discovery of germ theory inspired an entire generation of scientists. Though modern society in high, medium and low income countries still faces the ancient scourges of communicable diseases, but also the modern pandemics, In order to face the challenges ahead, it is important to have an understanding of the past. Although there is much in this age that is new, many of the current debates and arguments in public health are echoes of the past. We are better able to grasp the concept of germs and fight them off at home thanks to human evolution and the heroes of the past.