Ira L. Baldwin, who died recently at 103, was the President of Society of American Bacteriologists (now ASM) in 1944. This article is excerpted from his Presidential Address to the Society in May 1944.
Where Does the Trail Lead?
The 1944 Presidential Address to the Society provides an interesting mid-century perspective on the challenges facing microbiologists
Ira L. Baldwin
At the turn of this century a small group of American Bacteriologists met in Baltimore and formed the Society of American Bacteriologists. At this time we are holding the 45th General Meeting of the Society, in the midst of one of the world's most troubled times. I venture to take a few minutes this evening to look ahead as to the future of the SAB and of the science of bacteriology. With each of us straining every nerve and fibre in our jobs in connection with the war effort it is difficult to secure the necessary spirit of detachment needed to intelligently plan ahead. The difficulty of the task may, however, be an indication of its importance.
An analysis of the factors which have contributed to the growth and sound financial structure of the Society will be helpful in planning for the future. The three most important are: (i) The economic state of health of the Nation. (ii) The amount and character of the service rendered by the Society to the science and to its members. (iii) The value of the science to the nation and to mankind.
That the first of the environmental factors is important needs no elaboration. The effect of periods of prosperity and of depression on our membership record and our finances is clear for all to read. This is not the time or the place for a discussion of this item. Each of us has his part to play in this picture and we must not shirk our responsibility.
The second of the two environmental factors relates to the amount and character of the service which the Society renders to the science and to its members. No organization can maintain itself or long survive unless it renders a real service. The character of the Society of American Bacteriologists is in considerable measure determined by the officers and the councilors. However the experience of several years in an official capacity in the Society has convinced me that the membership must not forget their responsibilities in the determination of policies. The widespread distribution of the local branches and their power of electing councilors brings the management of the Society very close to the individual member. The News Letter serves to keep all members informed as to the actions of the Council and gives each member an opportunity to formulate his own views which can be transmitted to his representative on the Council. I urge that every member concern himself with the policies of the Society and not ``let John do it.''
So long as the Society meets the need for service to its members and the science and maintains a sound financial structure, it will prosper.
The third of the environmental factors I have mentioned relates to the status of the science of bacteriology. Any science will attract to itself workers and support as it demonstrates its worth to the nation and to mankind. It is gratifying to those who have made a life-work of bacteriology to see the increasing list of accomplishments which have accumulated during the years. For a considerable period, the science served as a hand-maiden to many applied fields. Although no line of demarcation can be set, it seems clear that bacteriology has now developed to the place where it now stands on its own feet.
At this time it behooves us to look ahead to see whether in growing up we have exhausted all the possibilities of the science or whether we stand at the threshold of new and inviting vistas. I believe it is the latter, and wish to mention five general fields which seem to offer much promise.
The first of these fields lies in a study of the synthetic activities of micro-organisms. The [degradative] reactions produced by microbial action are much larger in amount than the synthetic reactions and hence have been easier to study. However, we are beginning to see many interesting synthetic reactions and products. The discovery of penicillin and its value to mankind is only one example of the harvest that may be secured from an intensive study of this field. As another example, it seems certain that in the field of disease production there is much still hidden which may be brought to light by a study of the chemical compounds elaborated by the causative agents. As a third example, perhaps a study of the production of vitamins, proteins, fats, etc. by yeasts and other microorganisms may find a place in the food program of the world.
The second field to which I wish to call attention concerns the associative action of living organisms. Although the general facts of symbiosis and antibiosis are known, the importance and mechanisms of these reactions are little known. Our studies of pure cultures may blind us to the fact that rarely in nature do we find anything approaching a pure culture. Is it not now time to give more attention to these interactions of microorganisms with other living forms? As a few examples, I cite the phenomena of disease production by microorganisms, of symbiotic nitrogen fixation, of the microbial reactions concerned with the ripening of cheese and the maintenance of soil fertility. All of these have engaged our attention in the past, but we have in general backed away from the fundamental ecological studies because of the difficulties involved. I wonder if we now have developed enough tools to attack again these difficult problems.
The third general field relates to the place which microbiology can play in an elucidation of the fundamental problems of cellular growth and metabolism. The knowledge of pure culture methods in microbiology enables us to secure large masses of cells of a single kind and with a high degree of uniformity. Such cultures are ideal for studying many aspects of cell growth and metabolism. Perhaps a careful study of growth and metabolism in a culture of yeast or some other microorganism may give us a clue to the cancer problem with its unrestrained growth of malignant cells, Why should a tissue or a culture stop growth when it does? Is it too little of some food substance or too much of some inhibitory substance?
The fourth field is concerned with analytic reactions. In recent years much progress has been made in determining the mechanisms by which carbohydrates are broken down by microorganisms and the energy derived therefrom made available to the microorganism. Relatively little is known of the mechanism of protein or fat dissimilation. With many organisms and in many natural situations the breakdown of proteins and fats is more important than is the breakdown of carbohydrates. The difficulty in such a study is great but it seems probable that the rewards will be equally great.
The fifth field concerns itself with the study of microbial change and variation. Since the time of Koch much of our efforts in bacteriology have been devoted to the devising of methods to maintain our cultures in standard form and of standard activity. Nature rarely does this, and I wonder if in our research work we have not overlooked many important points by our too rigid insistence on standard methods. A few years ago I accidentally discovered that the introduction of glycine--the simplest of the amino acids--in a synthetic medium on which the symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacterium was grown resulted in a loss of the ability to infect the plant. Why, I have as yet been unable to discover. It is generally known that most animal pathogens lose their virulence when cultured on artificial media. Is this the result of a lack of some important growth factor or is it the result of the presence of harmful ingredients in the media? Is it not probable that additional study of the factors which cause variation in microorganisms will lead to information of great practical importance to mankind?
In conclusion may I make an affirmation of faith.
I believe that mankind has the ability and the will to make the world a better place in which to live.
I believe that the structure and traditions of the SAB can and will support a greater measure of service to the science or bacteriology and to its members.
I believe that the science of bacteriology is just beginning to demonstrate its worth to mankind, and that the present and future generations of bacteriologists will develop not only the fields which we now see but many others still unknown.
December 8, 1999
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