Some Famous Microbiologists
and their Breakthroughs


For more information visit : Highlights in the history of Microbiology


Ferdinand J Cohn published an early classification of bacteria (genus name Bacillus) for the first time in 1875.

Ilya Ilich Metchnikoff received the Nobel Prize in 1908 with Ehrlich, for demonstrating phagocytosis - the consumption of foreign particles and bacteria by the body's own antibodies.

Alice Catherine Evans (1881-1975).  Her work in Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture led to the identification of bacteria in fresh milk.  Her later research, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), improved the treatment of epidemic meningitis and she became first female president of the American Society for Microbiology in 1928.

Ruth Ella Moore (1903-1994).  The first African American to gain a PhD in microbiology in 1933 at Ohio State University, where she researched the tuberculosis bacterium.  Later she became the first woman to chair a medical school department at Howard University.

Rebecca Craighill Lancefield (1895-1981).  Developed a system of classification for Group A streptococcal bacteria - the Lancefield Grouping - which identifies bacteria including those causing scarlet fever, sore throat and erysipelas.  She received the Lasker Award and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Holger Jannasch   was one of the world's leading experts on life around mid-ocean hydrothermal vents.  His team discovered Pyrolobus fumarii, an Archaea,  at  the mid-Atlantic ridge in 1996.  Holger died in 1999.


Louis Pasteur (1822 -1895).  Developed a method of immunizing against a disease (chicken cholera) using a weakened (attenuated) strain of the pathogen in 1880.  In 1885 he carried out successful, but unethical, experiments with rabies on a child.  The term virus (poison) was coined by Pasteur.

Emil von Behring received the Nobel Prize in 1901 for his work with Shibasaburo Kitasato on the antitoxin serum for diptheria.

Paul Ehrlich in 1912, announced the discovery of an effective cure for syphilis, the first chemotherapeutic agent for a bacterial disease.

Margaret Pittman (1901-1995).  Identified the cause of whooping cough, which led to the development of an improved vaccine.  She became the first woman to direct a laboratory at the NIH and was cholera consultant to the World Health Organization and a leader in the standardization of vaccines.

Gerhard J Domagk used a chemically-produced antimetabolite to kill streptococci in mice, in 1935.  It was later used on human patients and he received the 1939 Nobel Prize for his work.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 whilst working at St Mary's Hospital in London and published the first paper on it the following year.  He received the Nobel Prize in 1945, with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, for their work on Penicillium notatum.

William A Hinton (1883-1959).  Directed the Massachusetts State Wasserman Laboratory from 1915 and taught for 30 years at Harvard University Medical School, becoming full professor there in 1949.  He developed a widely-used test for diagnosing syphilis.  He was instrumental in establishing the Eisenhower Scholarship at Harvard University.

Albert Shatz, E Bugie and Selman Waksman discovered streptomycin in 1944, which was then used to counter tuberculosis.  Selman Waksman received the Nobel Prize in 1952.


Sergei Winogradsky, in 1890, isolated nitrifying bacteria in soil and described the organisms which are responsible for nitrification.

Dmitri Ivanowski published the first evidence of tobacco mosaic virus, in 1892.

CB Van Niel, by his work on photosynthetic bacteria, in 1931 explained the fixation of carbon-dioxide in plants and suggested that plants use water as a source of electrons and release oxygen.

Wendell Stanley, in 1935, demonstrated the tobacco mosaic virus remains active even after crystallization.  He received the Nobel Prize in 1946 with Northrop and Sumner.


Theobald Smith and F L Kilbourne, in 1893 provided evidence of a zoonotic disease (in this case animal host and arthropod vector) by establishing that ticks carry Babesia microti.

Walter Reed worked on the viral agent for yellow fever being transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, which inspired mosquito eradication and the Yellow Fever Commission in 1900.


Frederick Twort, between 1915 and 1917, first discovered a bacterial virus which was also independently described and named as a bacteriophage by Felix d'Herrelle.

Francis Peyton Rous was awarded the 1966 Nobel Prize for work he carried out on chickens in 1911, that gave the first experimental proof of a virus causing cancer.

Stanley Prusiner found evidence in 1982 that a class of infections he called "prions" cause scrapie, a fatal neurodegenerative disease of sheep and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1997.

Luc Montaigner and Robert Gallo announced in 1983 the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) believed to cause AIDS.


Joseph Lister published his study of lactic fermentation of milk in 1878, using a method of isolating a pure culture of the bacterium responsible.

Martinus Beijerinck developed an enrichment culture to create the best conditions for growth of required bacterium in 1889.  Whilst working on tobacco mosaic virus in 1899, he discovered that a filtrate free of bacteria can still transmit the disease, by some other agent.

Robert Koch published a paper on the bacterium which causes anthrax in 1876.  In 1881 he developed the use of gelatin on glass plates as a means for culturing bacteria colonies for experiments.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work on the Tubercule bacillus of tuberculosis.

Albert Jan Kluyver and Hendrick Jean Louis Donker in 1926 proposed a model suitable for aerobic and anaerobic organisms, for metabolism in cells based on the transfer of hydrogen atoms.

John Franklin Enders, Thomas H Weller and Frederick Chapman Robbins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1954 for developing a technique to grow the poliovirus in test tube cultures of human tissue, thus enabling the isolation and study of viruses in the laboratory.

Peter Mitchell proposed the chemiosmotic theory in 1959, which explains ATP synthesis, solute accumulations/expulsions, and cell movement.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978.

George Kohler and Cesar Milstein in 1975, produced specific antibodies that can survive indefinitely in tissue culture, which can then be used for diagnostic tests and to study cell function.  With Jerne, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984.


Frederick Griffith discovered transformation in bacteria in 1928 and established the foundation of molecular genetics.

Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty in 1944 took up Griffith's work and showed that Streptococcus pneumoniae could transform from an avirulent to a virulent phenotype by the transfer of DNA.

George Beadle and Edward Tatum published a paper in 1941 on fungus experiments, which demonstrated that specific genes are expressed through action of designated enzymes the "one gene - one enzyme" concept.  They were awarded the Nobel Prize with Lederberg in 1958.

Joshua Lederberg and Edward Tatum published the first paper on conjugation in bacteria in 1946.  Joshua Lederberg and Norton Zinder showed that a phage of Salmonella typhimurium can carry DNA from one bacterium to another and reported on transduction (transfer of genetic information by viruses) in 1952.

Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase suggested in 1952 that only DNA is required for viral replication, after using radioactive isotopes to track protein and DNA.

Max Delbruck and Salvador Luria, demonstrated statistically in 1943 that inheritance in bacteria follow Darwin's principles and that mutant bacteria occurring randomly can still bestow viral resistance without the virus being present.  They received the Nobel Prize with Hershey in 1969.

Sydney Brenner, Francois Jacob and Matthew Meselson used phage-infected bacteria to confirm the existence of messenger RNA in 1961.

Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and James Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for describing the double-helix structure of DNA.  This was based on the X-ray crystallography of DNA done by Rosalind Franklin, who had died of cancer four years earlier.

Charles Yanofsky and colleagues in 1964, defined the relationship between the order of mutatable sites in the gene coding for Escherichia coli.

Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod (together with David Perrin and Carmen Sanchez) proposed the operon concept for control of bacteria gene action.  Jacob, Monod and Lwoff were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965.

Marsha Nirenberg and J H Matthaei realized in 1961 that the triplet UUU must code for phenylalanine and thus started to decipher the genetic code.  Nirenberg, Robert Holley and Har Gorbind Khorana were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968.

Stanley Cohen, Annie Chang, Robert Helling and Herbert Boyer in 1973, showed that recombinant DNA molecules will reproduce if inserted into bacteria cells, this paved the way for gene modification and cloning.

Howard Temin and David Baltimore independently discovered reverse transcriptase in RNA viruses in 1970, establishing a pathway for genetic information flow from RNA to DNA.  With Dulbecco they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1975.

Carl Woese in 1977, used ribosomal RNA analysis to identify Archaea whose genetic makeup is distinct from, but related to, both Bacteria and Eucarya.

Frederick Sanger was the first British scientist to be awarded two Nobel Prizes.  He received his first Nobel Prize in 1958 for discovering the sequence of amino acids in the hormone insulin.  Sanger, Walter Gilbert and Berg received the Nobel Prize in 1980 for their work on the chemical structure of genes.

Kary Mullis used a heat-stable enzyme to establish Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology and amplify target DNA in 1986.  He received the Nobel Prize in 1993.

Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith, Claire Fraser and colleagues determined the first complete genome sequence of a microorganism - Haemophilus influenzae RD, in 1995.

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