We study microbiology because bacteria, viruses and fungi are the leading cause of death in the history of mankind.
Tiny and virtually invisible microbes studied by microbiologists have had a tremendous impact on society since the earliest days of recorded history. Bacteria, viruses and fungi have been responsible for the downfall of governments, famine, and death on an almost incalculable scale. It has only been in the last one hundred years that we have finally begun to win the age old battle with these small and deadly bugs.
Before bacteria and viruses were discovered, people believed that disease arose spontaneously in diseased tissues. No one had any idea that infections were caused by very small living organisms. In the 17th Century a Dutch scientist by the name of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek made improvements to microscopes, which allowed researchers to directly see bacteria for the first time. An entire universe was opened up for viewing.
Prior to the 20th Century, the most common causes of death were due to infectious diseases. Pneumonia and tuberculosis killed by the thousands. Minor injuries to soldiers would become infected and kill weeks later. Crowded and unsanitary conditions in cities would become breeding grounds for dozens of potentially lethal organisms.
On frequent occasion, bacteria and viruses have taken center stage in the drama of human history. let's take a quick look at for examples of microbiology's effect on society.
The Black Death or The Black Plague
In the mid-14th century a disease spread out of Central Asia and into Europe. This deadly malady quickly spread throughout all of Western Europe It is estimated to be responsible for the death of up to 75 million people worldwide. Approximately one third to two thirds of the population of Europe was killed. The plague reached as far as China - where it is believed to have killed over 30% of that population as well.
The Black Plague is now known to have been caused by a bacteria known as yersinia pestis. This bacteria was carried by a rats. Fleas which lived on the rats would pick up the infection and pass it along to people. Unfortunately for the people of the 14th century, there was a widely held belief that cats were at least partly responsible for the deaths. Cats were killed by the millions, which only aided to increase the rat population and promote the spread of the plague. The sociological and political implications of almost half of the European population being killed in less than one generation cannot be understated.
It should be noted that yersinia pestis still exists today, even in America. It can be found in many rodents and prairie dogs, especially in the Southwest parts of America. Of course, we now have antibiotics available which make treatment somewhat routine. Needless to say, the entire course of Western Civilization would have been dramatically different had these antibiotics existed in the 14th Century.
Irish Potato Famine
In the mid-19th Century, a fungus known as Phytophthora infestans, rapidly spread throughout Ireland. This fungus attacked and killed the major food crop of Ireland - potatoes. The devastation of the potato crop led directly to famine and widespread deaths due to hunger.
Due to the potato famine and lack of food available at home, many Irish chose to leave their country and travel to new lands. This resulted in one of the largest mass migrations of people in the history of man. The political implications of the Irish diaspora are still being felt today. The Irish government was thrown into turmoil, and the history of America was directly affected by a massive influx of Irish immigrants. Irish art, literature, and music was directly affected by the events of the potato famine as well.
In 1918, in the small town of Fort Riley Kansas, a deadly strain of influenza was first discovered. This virus quickly spread to New York, and from there it made the leap across the Atlantic Ocean into Europe. The death count from this influenza pandemic is staggering. It is estimated that between three and five percent of the world's population was killed by this virus. That amounts to between 50 and 100 million people.
If it can be said that anything good can come from this, the Spanish flu has been credited in some circles with the advent of modern medicine in America. Prior to the Spanish flu of 1918, American medicine was considered primitive at best. In order to combat the deadly influenza virus, American scientists and researchers rapidly updated the quality of their research and medical training facilities. The effects of this are still seen today as America is largely considered to have one of the best medical education systems in the world.
Many of the previous examples of bacterial or fungal and viral infections may seem like distant and remote parts of history. However, today we face a deadly threat from a virus as well. The HIV virus is the modern-day bad guy in the fight against microscopic pathogens. Almost everyone today is aware of the HIV virus and what it is capable of. HIV and AIDS has implications that are social, political, economic, as well as medical. In addition, this little virus has changed sexual dynamics around the world.
Of course, there are literally dozens of other microbial pathogens that are common today. The above examples are dramatic, but there are many others. From the bird flu to antibiotic resistant "Super Bugs", not a day goes by where these tiny killers aren't in the news. Scientists and doctors are waging a constant battle against Nature's Microbiological soldiers.
We study microbiology because we cannot afford not to. Our lives and the lives of future generations depend on it.
For further reading on this subject, find a copy of the book "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. This award-winning book goes into tremendous detail on the topic of microbiology and how it is affected human society over the ages. Even if you have no interest in microbiology is a science, there is no denying its importance to our history.