A Century of Society Meetings
Reviewing presentations from 100 years of meetings shows how far the science has come while highlighting its connections with the past
"Professor Conn exhibited some cultures of a highly variable Micrococcus which he had isolated many times from milk. Its color ranged all the way from a snow white to a deep orange, and in power of liquefying gelatin it ranged from a form that liquified with great rapidity to one that had apparently no liquefying power. All these varieties, with numerous intermediate stages, have been found in nature and are not the result of cultivation. Professor Conn showed, however, what a great change can apparently be produced by a simple process of selection."
The abstract of Herbert W. Conn's talk at the first meeting of the Society of American Bacteriologists (SAB) in New Haven, Conn., on 27-29 December 1899 reflects the simple, active, limpid prose in which much science was then recorded. Yet it also embodies themes that have continued to interest bacteriologists over the past century-the chemical activities of bacteria, differences between their behavior in the laboratory and in the outside world, and their variation and selection.
From the standpoint of medical and much practical bacteriology, the program of that inaugural gathering, held at Yale University Medical School, was surprisingly comprehensive. As shown in the accompanying facsimile, it embraced nomenclature and systematics; sterilization and antiseptics; sewage treatment; dairy bacteriology; the testing of water, milk, and canned food; investigations on the organisms of plague, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and actinomycosis; "the so-called fermentation of tobacco;" and even a "new" pathogenic fungus. Given that Martinus Beijerinck and Serge Winogradsky were then well into their stride in Europe, nonmedical bacteriology seems to have been underrepresented. Nevertheless, the new society's president, William T. Sedgwick, more than compensated for any such imbalance in his fine after-dinner address which embraced the subject in its broadest sense.
"Bacteriology is a child of the 19th century. It is the offspring of chemistry and biology, enriched by physics with the gift of the achromatic microscope," he began. After cohering into a single vision insights drawn from studies of fermentation, putrefaction, organic decomposition, nitrification, and epidemic disease, he paid handsome tribute to the work of Louis Pasteur.
"Though not exactly a chemist, he was able to meet chemists on their own ground. Though not exactly a microscopist, he was highly trained in physics and mineralogy, and thus quickly became a master of the microscope," Sedgwick said. "Time has proved beyond all peradventure that the foundations laid by Pasteur were laid solidly and securely." Inspired by the Frenchman, "a host of eager and enthusiastic workers" had now thrown themselves "with intense zeal into the study of the micro-organisms which constitute the field of micro-biology."
Throughout the 1899 proceedings, perceptive comments about how bacteria behave and evolve intermingled with frustrating ignorance concerning the underlying mechanisms. "The evolution of parasitic from saprophytic forms is a very slow and gradual process," said Theobald Smith. "Special advantages which a certain environment may offer for frequent passages through susceptible species may give certain saprophytes an impulse towards a parasitic existence."
Smith speculated that some organisms which did not originally cause disease had "fighting characters," such as the capacity to produce toxins, which enabled them to become pathogens. However, "the degree of change that can be impressed upon any bacteria probably depends largely on the specific structure of the organism." Moreover, "processes of conjugation and other sexual phenomena, such as are found among protozoa, are unknown."
Little progress in understanding these matters is apparent from the agenda for the SAB's 25th meeting in 1923, also held at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven. Nevertheless, the program shows clear evidence that both the Society and the subject itself had expanded vigorously.
Though the gathering again took place from 27 to 29 December, there were 84 talks - more than three times the number in 1899. In addition, the menu not only ranged widely over scientific topics such as thermophiles, the Twort-D'Herelle phenomenon (bacteriophage), and the migration of bacteria in an electric field, but also embraced professional challenges.
One hot area was the need for practical standards and replicability, ranging from the accuracy and capacity of the platinum loop to a proposed limit of 10,000,000 bacteria per gram for the condemnation of hamburger steaks.
Speaking of the Committee on Bacteriological Technic which he chaired, Harold J. Conn (son of Herbert Conn) said that it was "not the function of the Society to standardize technic in the sense of adopting official methods. . . .The activities of this committee should, on the other hand, be concerned with the development of new technic.
"New technic cannot be developed in a logical way, however, without standardization of material and supplies. Accordingly the committee has given assistance in this line, notably in cooperation with other societies in the standardization of biological stains."
But this was not so simple. In another talk, Conn described a project in which the SAB committee had distributed to several centers slides prepared in one laboratory, together with samples of stains and directions. The results proved to be slightly more constant than in a previous exercise with less stringent controls. However, "there was enough variation to show that certain organisms are really Gram variable; and that it is almost impossible, if not quite so, to standardize the technic sufficiently to make all results agree."
Taxonomy and nomenclature were other pressing concerns. Robert S. Breed and Margaret E. Breed reviewed a catalogue of confusion over the binomial used to describe "the type species of the genus Serratia, commonly known as Bacillus prodigiosus," and argued strongly for the name Serratia marcescens. But they then relented, suggesting that those who found it hard to give up a familiar epithet could continue to use "prodigiosus as a familiar or trivial name if desired."
Likewise David H. Bergey highlighted "the inappropriateness of the name Streptococcus hemolyticus" when at least eight distinct species had been clearly identified by agglutinin absorption tests. "A strong plea is made for the application in practice of the recent advances in our knowledge of the specific characters of the hemolytic streptococci, especially in the intelligent use of homologous and mixed streptococcus vaccines and of specific monovalent or of polyvalent antiserum containing antibodies against several species of hemolytic streptococci."
The reliability of serological tests for syphilis was the subject of three papers, two of them by Reuben L. Kahn. His flocculation test was then rivaling the Wassermann complement fixation test as a more rapid method of diagnosing syphilis, though both were subsequently superseded. Then aged 35, just one year younger than Kahn, Selman Waksman was another speaker who delivered two papers. The first, given in conjunction with Robert L. Starkey, was on methods of encouraging the growth of various categories of organism in soil. They reported that the addition of dried blood brought about "an extensive development of fungi, bacteria and actinomycetes." In his other paper, Waksman described the relationship between microorganisms and the carbon:nitrogen ratio of soil.
Although the single, uncategorized program of 1899 was now replaced by eight half days (including simultaneous sessions) on different topics, a strikingly large proportion of papers was concerned with food or water. Under "General Bacteriology," Victoria Carlsson and colleagues warned that "even the cheapest iceboxes should not be sold without thermometers for each shelf . . . to impress upon the user the necessity of low temperatures." Speakers from the National Canners' Association dealt with the heat resistance of spores, while William Albus identified Clostridium welchii (now C. perfring- ens) as responsible for the gassy fermentation of Niszler cheese.
Under "Agricultural and Industrial Bacteriology," Katherine G. Bitting reported Bacillus cereus and other organisms in string beans treated according to published directions for home canning. Other speakers identified capping machines and even pasteurizing equipment as sources of high bacterial counts in milk.
"Comparative Pathology and Immunology" also embraced many food-related topics, including botulism, tuberculosis, and paratyphoid fever. Among the food poisoning outbreaks reported was one in which investigators traced the offending organism to rodent feces on a shelf just above the place where buckets of ice-cream filler were left to cool.
"In all probability these droppings were the source of contamination," the authors concluded. "Probably the cats in the bakery, jumping to this shelf in pursuit of rodents, were the means of brushing some of the droppings into the filler."
The SAB chose the Lord Baltimore and Emerson hotels in Baltimore, Md., for its 50th (Golden Jubilee) Meeting in 1950. By then the event had expanded to four full days, with over 250 talks and even more overlapping sessions (plus four "scientific motion pictures"). Robert Breed and Reuben L. Kahn again spoke, as did a galaxy of other pioneers including Millislav Demerec, Geoffrey Edsall, Howard Gest, I. C. Gunsalus, Michael Heidelberger, Carl Lindegren, Joseph Melnick, Stuart Mudd, David Pramer, Albert Sabin, Albert Schatz, and Jonas Salk.
Extending the original pool of academics and government scientists, there were speakers from Burroughs Wellcome, Ciba, Pfizer, Sharp & Dohme, Abbott, American Cyanamid, Squibb, and Parke, Davis. Another conspicuous change from 1925 was the number of contributions from Army and Navy laboratories, including no fewer than 12 from Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. There was also a significant growth of non-U.S. participation, with speakers from Havana, Cuba, and from three Canadian cities-plus Aldo Castellani (author of Microbes, Men and Monarchs) from Lisbon, Portugal.
One notable link between the 25th and 50th events was the Yale bacteriologist Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, who spoke on both occasions. Delivering the Welch-Novy-Russell Lecture during the Baltimore meeting, he said he believed the honor was due in part to the fact that he was one of only seven surviving charter members. The other reason, he suspected, was that "President Barnett Cohen was the first of my students at Yale and that he desires to get even with me by calling on me to recite."
Winslow gave a masterly review of historical landmarks, concluding with the work of Martinus Beijerinck and the Delft School and the discoveries of penicillin and streptomycin. He was clearly delighted that his own career had taken him from using the culture tube and microscope slide as the chief tools of research to a point where, following advances in physiology and biochemistry, many papers were now "far beyond my training and experience."
The Golden Jubilee program confirms the transformation. The subjects of about half of the sessions, ranging from "Sanitation and Soils" to "Dairy and Foods," reflected those addressed 25 and even 50 years earlier. Yet the contents of the remainder, on topics such as antibiotics, mutation, electron microscopy and viruses, and rickettsia, would have been well beyond the scope of the previous meetings.
The 1950 Lilly Award winner, Roger Stanier, gave elegant testimony to both the progress and unfinished business of science. He contrasted contemporary knowledge of fermentation, its stepwise metabolism and the coupling of released energy to anabolic reactions, with the understanding of microbial oxidative metabolism. Here, Stanier said, investigators were in roughly the position which Harden and Neuberg occupied 40 years previously as regards glycolysis, with some `interesting and suggestive facts" but no coherent scheme.
"An overall picture of bacterial oxidative metabolism, if one is hardy enough to attempt its construction, strongly resembles a seventeenth century geographer's map of North America. The shape of the continent is roughly outlined, some small local areas already penetrated by the pioneers are correctly shown, but vast regions are either simply left blank or filled in as fancy dictates."
When the (by now) American Society for Microbiology held its Diamond Jubilee Meeting in Chicago, Ill., on 12-17 May, 1974, the program was well into exponential growth. It now encompassed over 1,500 papers and spread over five solid days in the Conrad Hilton Hotel, plus simultaneous sessions in the Blackstone and Pick Congress hotels for much of the time.
Among the speakers were a small number from the 1950 meeting. Especially notable was David Pramer, who in Baltimore had authored a paper on the determination of streptomycin in soil in conjunction with Robert L. Starkey-Waksman's coauthor in 1923. Decades later, in Chicago, Pramer was a coauthor of presentations on the biodegradation of 2,4-D and the nuclear polyhedrosis virus of Porthetria dispar.
Edwin H. Lennette demonstrated herpesvirus antigen in human brain tissue by solid-phase radioimmunoassay. Joseph Melnick talked on fucosylglycolipids in cells transformed by a temperature-sensitive mutant of murine sarcoma virus, and Eugene A. Delwiche described the effects of polyamines on the growth of Veillonella alcalescens. Nobelists Arthur Kornberg, Frederick Robbins, and Salvador Luria discussed "Contributions of Microbiology-Past, Present and Future" at the Diamond Jubilee Symposium. Luria spoke on "Contributions of Microbiology to Genetics."
The Diamond Jubilee also saw further growth in overseas participation. Noel Carr came from Liverpool University in the United Kingdom to talk about the metabolism of blue-green algae. Henry J. Rogers came from the National Institute for Medical Research in London to discuss bacterial iron metabolism and host resistance. A. C. Matin (now at Stanford University but then at the State University of Groningen in the Netherlands) presented two papers. One was with Hans Veldkamp on freshwater organisms and the other with J. G. (Gijs) Keunen on the active transport of amino acids by membrane vesicles of Thiobacillus neopolitanus. Peter Wildy and coworkers from Birmingham Medical School, U.K., authored a paper on herpes simplex viruses.
Among a wealth of other speakers-already famed, of emerging fame, or yet to be widely famed-were Raul Cano, Robert Chanock, Rita Colwell, Roy Curtiss, Stanley Dagley, Arnie Demain, Carleton Gajdusek, Robert Gallo, I. C. Gunsalus, Harlyn Halvorson, Jay Hoofnagle, Edwin Kilbourne, Hilary Koprowski, Ruth Kundsin, "Joe" Lampen, Thomas Merrigan, Enzo Paoletti, Norman Pace, Stanley Plotkin, Simon Silver, Waclaw Szybalski, Byron Waksman, and David White.
Amidst this panoply of names, and the burgeoning research activities they represented, it seems ironic that the theme for the set-piece New Brunswick Lecture, given by Max Tishler on the Wednesday of the Chicago meeting, should have been "Is Science Dead?" Yet a quarter of a century later, there is both reassurance and disquietude in the familiarity of three of Tishler's worries-assertions by contemporary critics that science had gotten "too big for its britches," calls for scientists to be "thrown out of the Garden of Eden," and lamentations over "the low esteem of basic research in our national science policy."
While acknowledging that "the exercise of scientific privilege" had brought "staggering benefits," Tishler nevertheless suggested that science may have been "overselling its beneficence" and "saying too little about the harm it could bring." The way for scientists to retain their privilege, he said, was to "exercise it with responsibility; not responsibility to science alone but primarily to the human condition."
There was a pleasing coherence between Tishler's address and the ASM Lecture, given by Rene Dubos, with which the Diamond Jubilee meeting opened. He chose "The Road Not Taken"-a line from Robert Frost-as the subtitle for his talk on "Pasteur's Dilemma." Dubos pointed out Pasteur's awareness, evident from his writings, of the scientific opportunities he had neglected by taking the "pure culture" road in his research. But this had been right, Dubos argued, because that approach had been an indispensable phase in the emergence of the subject.
"For almost a century," he said, "microbiological sciences have provided models, materials, and techniques that have greatly facilitated the understanding of the mechanisms responsible for the operation of isolated biological processes.
"Our science can now . . . provide models, materials, and techniques for a new step in the study of life. Just as microbiologists have been pioneers in modern developments of metabolism and genetics, so they can now participate in the effort to understand the integration of individual biological units into more complex social structures-including human societies."
May 9, 1999
|Copyright © 1999 American Society for MicrobiologyAll rights reserved|