Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77.2 (2003) 466-467
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Debra Jan Bibel. Microbial Musings: A History of Microbiology. Belmont, Calif.: Star Publishing, 2001. xxv + 398 pp. Ill. $38.95 (paperbound, 0-89863-211-0).
In this volume Debra Jan Bibel offers an anthology of her articles published previously by the the Northern California Branch of the American Society for Microbiology. Taking the opportunity to revise, update, and expand sixty-five historical notes that first appeared in her column "Rummagings Along the Dusty Shelf," Bibel delights her audience, both new and old, with a wide variety of stories all related to the history of microbiology. Through her book, she sends a message primarily to microbiologists, who, depending on their stage of life, will be either cautioned, motivated, or reminded of the continuity of purpose of their broader scientific endeavors. Presenting her own "unabashedly personal take on the sociological, psychological, economic, ethical, political, philosophical, and cultural aspects of the scientific investigation of mainly medically important microorganisms" (p. xix), she encourages her readers to adopt a broader perspective on their science—to examine the place of their research in society. While historians will find Bibel's methodology somewhat naive and overstated, her intended audience, if they are as uninitiated in the broader context for their own work as she intimates, will find her clearly written stories very enlightening.
Bibel divides her book into eight sections of varied size, each containing a number of short articles: "Biographical Sketches" (fourteen articles in 74 pages), "Microbes" (eleven in 73 pages), "Philosophical Issues" (ten in 68 pages), "Literary Pursuits" (ten in 52 pages), "Vaccines" (seven in 45 pages), "Ecological Patterns" (four in 27 pages), "The Business of Science" (five in 27 pages), and "Institutions" (three in 14 pages). From 1982 to the present Bibel has "mused" about a long series of somewhat neglected scientists who worked in fields closely related to microbiology: "Petenkoffer, Winogradsky, and the Philosophy of Etiology" (chap. 1), "René Dubos" (chap. 53), and "Ferdinand Cohn" (chap. 44). A closer look at the last of these points out both the positive and negative aspects of Bibel's work. On the one hand, she helps to remedy the near absence of any work [End Page 466] in English on Cohn, a central character in the early history of bacteriology. On the other hand, by drawing nearly exclusively on secondary sources and an English translation of Cohn's short, popular article (1872), she makes claims not supported by a deeper familiarity with the original scientific publications. For example, her assertion that "after [Louis] Pasteur, Cohn was the next to explore bacteriology in depth" (p. 266) is incorrect: Cohn had begun his research in microscopic fungi and algae in the 1850s, when Pasteur was still searching for a cosmic asymmetrical force in crystallography.
The most engaging aspect of this book is, perhaps, the author's insider perspective on recent and ongoing debates in immunology and microbial ecology, two of her own professional specialties. In several essays, including "The Carrier State" (chap. 12), "The L-Form Fad" (chap. 36), and "On Taxonomy" (chap. 40), she uses her own experiences to ask enticing questions concerning the rigidity or ephemerality of scientific trends. Also, her interest in the relationship between Zen Buddhism and science is woven throughout her work, particularly in "Reductionism vs. Holism" (chap. 2) and "The Role of Technology" (chap. 15)—an interest that admits Bibel to a large group of holistic-thinking microbiologists including Pasteur and Sergei Winogradsky.
Bibel intends her book to be used by instructors to add spice to their often dry science lectures, and to entice scientists to think more broadly about their research; it is an excellent book for that purpose. Because it comprises short essays, it is used most effectively as an encyclopedia; however, a more complete index would have better facilitated this function. Microbial Musings is a good resource for an introduction to the history of microbiology.
Johns Hopkins University