A Chronology of Bacteriology-Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania – The Formative Years: 1851 to 1900
James A. Poupard PhD, Archivist, Eastern PA Branch ASM 2015
BACKGROUND: Of the various institutions in Philadelphia that had an influence on the development of bacteriology during the later decades of the nineteenth century, the University of Pennsylvania played a dominant role. A majority of the first and second-generation of Philadelphia bacteriologists were associated with the University of Pennsylvania, especially the medical department, which included pathology and microscopy. The work of Robert Koch in Germany on tuberculous stimulated a new awareness, and interest, in the new field of bacteriology among American physicians as well as the general public. However, interest in this developing field relating to the University of Pennsylvania can be traced to a time much earlier than 1880. As early as 1830, when William Edmonds Horner was awarded the chair of anatomy, he was one of the first physicians to use the microscope in serious professional studies and published a classic account on the pathology of Asiatic cholera. In the late1830s and 1840s, the importance of the lecture hall versus practical bedside clinical experience for medical students became an issue for discussion when men like William Wood Gerhard returned from studying in Europe. He was a proponent of the need for the comparison of signs and symptoms of illness, which were noted at the bedside, and with organic lesions found at postmortem examination.
An outbreak of typhoid fever in Philadelphia, shortly after Gerhard returned from Paris, enabled him to apply bedside observations with his observations made from postmortem examinations to clearly distinguish typhoid fever from typhus fever. He also made the first accurate clinical study of tubercular meningitis in children. During this period, emphasis was placed on the need for medical students to visit the wards of the two nearby hospitals, Pennsylvania Hospital and the Philadelphia Almshouse. In 1874, the first university-controlled general hospital, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania opened. This event greatly encouraged the marriage of clinical observation with new principles of hygiene—including bacteriology and other academic subjects. As the century progressed, the new departments and institutions associated with the University, and especially the Medical School, demonstrated how various factors came together to assist in the separation of bacteriology as a new field of study for both the medical student, as well as students of natural science and biology. Another University department involved with the separation of bacteriology as a defined subject of study centered on hygiene which lead to the opening of the Laboratory of Hygiene in 1892. This resulted in the inclusion of bacteriology as a required subject in the medical student curriculum. The following is an overview of some significant dates and events occurring at the University of Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century that relate to the eventual formation of bacteriology-microbiology as a separate scientific entity.
Joseph Leidy wrote “A Flora and Fauna within Living Animals” which was published in 1854. This massive and well-illustrated work described, in remarkable detail, the plants, animals, protozoa, and worms that live in and on various forms of life. In this work, as well as in other shorter reports, he identified many new species of both parasitic and free living life forms. This publication is considered a classic in the field of parasitology.
Joseph Leidy was appointed professor of anatomy at the age of thirty. This marked the trend of opening significant academic appointments to more youthful professors, who replaced the old more indoctrinated professors. This also opened the door for the inclusion of new ideas, like the importance of evolving developments in pathology, the biological sciences, as well as hygiene and bacteriology.
Following the Civil War, hygiene was added to the medical school curriculum, which eventually opened the way for bacteriology to gain in importance. Henry Hartshorne became the first professor of hygiene.
The opening of The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania creates a source of patients for medical students to better combine clinical observations with concepts of hygiene.
In recognition of the importance of pathology, James Tyson was awarded the first chair of pathology, and he took on the role of teaching bacteriology.
Joseph Leidy published “Fresh-Water Rhizopods of North America” which is still considered a reference for this aspect of protozology.
Henry F. Formad established a laboratory in the Medical Building where he conducted animal studies on tuberculosis. George M. Sternberg used Formad’s laboratory to isolate and identify an organism, which he eventually called Micrococcus pasteuri, as an organism in human saliva that caused septicemia in rabbits.
William Pepper began planning for an Institute of Hygiene to be associated with the medical school.
The small bacteriology laboratory established by Henry Formad is described in the 1883-1884 School Catalogue as, “supplied with a complete outfit of materials and apparatus for the investigation of bacteria in their relation to infectious diseases, and the study of lower fungi in general.”
William Osler joined the faculty and set up a small clinical laboratory in the University Hospital, where he conducted clinical tests and microscopic examinations on patient specimens; and he also established a clinical laboratory in a small brick building where postmortem examinations were held. There he studied seventy cases of malaria. He was one of the first investigators in America to confirm the presence of the malaria parasite in the blood of patients with the disease. He also taught medical students how to look for the tubercle bacillus shortly after Koch published his findings on this bacillus.
The department of biology was created, with Joseph Leidy as the first professor of biology; this reinforced the need for medical students to take preclinical studies in the biological sciences.
The School of Veterinary Medicine was founded in 1884 and opened to students on 2 October of that year; however, formal courses in bacteriology were not initiated until 1896.
Samuel G. Dixon fitted and improved his medical laboratory to make it better suited for bacteriology research.
Henry C. Lea, the wealthy publisher and historian, offered to donate funds for William Pepper’s proposed Laboratory of Hygiene if the university could raise additional funding. Lea also placed additional requirements, which included the need for money to be raised for equipment, and an endowment to be used to establish a department of hygiene, and that Dr. John Shaw Billings had to be recruited as director. An additional requirement was that hygiene be made a compulsory study in the medical school, and that the medical student curriculum be extended to four yearsof study.
Simon Flexner became chair of pathology and strengthened the need for bacteriology at the University, and Juan Guiteras replaced James Tyson as professor of pathology. Guiteras built his reputation on his work on yellow fever and the pathology of infectious diseases.
Henry Formad, made improvements to his bacteriology laboratory for the culturing and staining of bacteria, and Formad’s assistant, J. Leffingwell, improved techniques for isolating bacteria from blood.
After finishing their medical studies at the university, Samuel Kneass took courses at the Pasteur Institute, and Joseph McFarland studied at Heidelberg with Paul Ernst. They then returned to the University to do laboratory studies in bacteriology in the expanded Guiteras laboratory department.
Billings signed an agreement to design an up-to-date laboratory building at 215 South Thirty-Fourth Street and to become director of the new institute as professor of hygiene. On 2 February 1892, the Institute of Hygiene opened. The name was almost immediately changed and became known as the Laboratory of Hygiene. It became the training ground for some of the nation’s pioneering bacteriologists. The facility played an important role in supporting the teaching mission of many disciplines. Primarily medical, but also dental, veterinary, engineering, and natural science students, received instruction in public health and bacteriology within this special laboratory building. The laboratory was one of only about ten such facilities in the world when it was opened, and the first of its kind in the United States. Its state-of-the-art heating and ventilating system were specifically designed to safeguard the health of those working with pathogenic bacteria. The 1891-1892 School Catalogue included the following announcement: “Through the liberality of a number of citizens of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania has been enabled to establish a Laboratory of Hygiene. A large building, especially planned and fitted for this purpose, is now nearing completion and will be completely equipped and ready for use on 1 February 1892.”
1892 The Laboratory of Hygiene opens its doors and ushered in the real beginning of bacteriology as a separate discipline at the University. Bacteriology became a required course of study with a dedicated faculty. The new Department of Hygiene is formed with John S. Billings, director; A. C. Abbott, first assistant and Albert A. Ghriskey, assistant in bacteriology. Billings, through his assistants, focused on teaching practical hygiene, while Abbott and his staff focused on teaching responsibilities for bacteriology. Two courses were offered, one in hygiene and “an elementary course in bacteriology,” which began on the day the building opened and continued for eight weeks, five days per week.
William Pepper Jr. obtained an endowment for the establishment of the Pepper Laboratory of Clinical Medicine, which was to be part of the University Hospital system. The laboratory was to engage in clinical studies and original research. The four-story brick building was completed in 1895. On the first floor were laboratories for microscopic, chemical, and bacteriological studies.
Bacteriology appears for the first time in the announcement of the medical department as a subject to be pursued by medical students during their third year. The catalogue states that there is one lecture a week for six weeks with six laboratory demonstrations. The pathology department, under Guiteras, was responsible for teaching the course. J.McFarland assisted with the course through 1895.
The only link between the Laboratory of Hygiene, where the medical students took their bacteriology course, and the medical department was that J. S. Billings, director of the Laboratory of Hygiene, held his title of professor of hygiene in the medical department. With the resignation of Billings, A.C. Abbott also became professor of hygiene in the medical department.
The Laboratory of Hygiene bacteriology course had six students, one being David Hendricks Bergey, with A. W. Peckham listed as a student in the new course in advanced bacteriology.
The Pepper Laboratory of Clinical Medicine officially opened on 4 December. The building contained the most modern apparatus for chemical, bacteriological, and clinical investigation. Samuel S. Kneass was placed in charge of the laboratory of bacteriology.
The School of Dental Medicine was founded in 1878 but formal courses in bacteriology for dental students were not initiated in 1896. The following statement is from the minutes of the Dental School Faculty, dated 3 March: “Believing that a sufficient knowledge of Bacteriology is essential to the proper education of a dentist, it is recommended that the Trustees provide for a semi-popular course of about six lectures to be given to the senior class of the Department of Dentistry as soon as possible during the present session, which course should not be obligatory or include a final examination. But the ensuing year and thereafter, it is recommended and requested that instructions both in didactic and in laboratory work shall be given to third year dental students in Bacteriology so far as it is adapted to their needs, and that the study of it be made an obligatory part of the third year curriculum.” Arrangements were made with the Laboratory of Hygiene for A. C. Abbott to teach the bacteriology course to third-year dental students. In later years, D. H. Bergey also taught in the dental school.
The elective laboratory course in bacteriology for medical students, conducted by A. C. Abbott and his staff, became so popular in this year that the entire medical school class was required to take this course.
The first reference to bacteriology in the Veterinary School appears in the Annual Catalogue as “Practical Bacteriology.” The course for second-year students was scheduled to meet after February 1 on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, and for third-year students, before February 1 on Monday mornings. Juan Guiteras was professor in both the medical and veterinary departments at that time, but the announcement did not state where or by whom the instruction was given, although he is listed as teaching the course in the catalogue of the following year.
M. P. Ravenel was listed as demonstrator of veterinary bacteriology, since at the end of 1899, Guiteras resigned his position to return to Cuba, and Simon Flexner succeeded him as professor of pathology in both the medical and veterinary departments.
Third year dental students take bacteriology for two three-hour periods per week.
Simon Flexner succeeded Guiteras in charge of pathology and insisted that pure bacteriology, that was still taught in the medical department, had to be taught by a bacteriologist. (The concept was that “practical” bacteriology was taught in the Laboratory of Hygiene.) A.C. Abbott became professor of hygiene and bacteriology, and later that same year he became professor of bacteriology in the medical department.
Bacteriology was taught to the second-year veterinary students on Thursdays at 10:00a.m. with a notation that “the lectures are held in the medical department.” McFarland proposes that Abbott probably gave the lectures since he was professor of hygiene and bacteriology in the medical department, with the laboratory instructions given by Ravenel in the veterinary department.
In 1899, A. C. Abbott became one of the three founding members of The Society of American Bacteriologists. The formation of a separate society dedicated to bacteriology-microbiology demonstrates the progress made in this field as the new century was about to begin. With Abbott as one of the three founders demonstrates the role the University of Pennsylvania played in advancing and defining this new field of study.
The New Century
Several faculty members played a significant role in the early days of the Society of American Bacteriologists (SAB) by serving as presidents and committee members of the Society. In 1920 David H. Bergey was influential in forming the Eastern Pennsylvania Branch of SAB, and became its first president. Microbiology continued to flourish at the University in the new century. In 1910 the Henry Phipps Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Tuberculosis was transferred to the University. This institute earned a worldwide reputation for research on tuberculosis and later expanded to other infectious diseases. In 1931 Stuart Mudd reorganized the Department of Bacteriology, and brought in new faculty members that gave the department a more prominent role within the University. This department played a dominant role in advancing such fields as electron microscopy, air sampling, and studies on the pathogenicity of staphylococci, as well as other areas of microbiology. In 1951 the name of the department was changed to the Department of Microbiology.
1. James A. Poupard, A History of Microbiology in Philadelphia 1880 to 2010 – Including a Detailed History of the Eastern Pennsylvania Branch of the ASM from 1920 to 2010. 2010 Xlibris Corp., Bloomington, IN.
2. George W. Corner, Two Centuries of Medicine, A History of the School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. 1965 J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.
3. Joseph McFarland, The Beginning of Bacteriology in Philadelphia. Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, 1937. 5:149-198.
4. University of Pennsylvania School Catalogues. Referenced in individual chronology entries.