/ Bacteriology and Serology and the Hygienic Laboratory

    1. Bacteriology and Serology and the Hygienic Laboratory (1942)

    THE beginning of bacteriology in the University can be traced back to 1881. In June of that year the Board of Regents established a School of Political Science, and among the courses listed was Sanitary Science, taught by Dr. Victor Clarence Vaughan (Mount Pleasant College [Mo.] ’72, Ph.D. Michigan ’76, ’78m, LL.D. ibid. ’00), then Assistant Professor of Physiological Chemistry. In the outline of the course, as given in the University Calendar for 1881-82, twelve main topics were presented, and among these the fifth is of special interest, since it concerned “Ferments and Germs; physiological ferments, and fermentation; disease germs; filth diseases; antiseptics and disinfectants and their use; quarantine, vaccination, etc.” This was an elective course begun in October, 1881, in the Department of Literature, Science, and the Arts and consisted of lectures, twice weekly, in the first semester.

    At that period it was quite proper to speak of the “germ theory,” for bacteriology was then in its infancy. The bacteria of several human diseases, apart from those of animals, had been seen, but in the absence of suitable means of cultivation it was not possible to prove their role as causative agents. It was early in 1881 that Pasteur and, independently, a few weeks later, Major G. M. Sternberg, of the United States Army, discovered the microbe of sputum septicemia which later came to be identified as the cause of pneumonia. The bacillus of tuberculosis was not discovered until the spring of 1882. Again, it was in 1881 that Pasteur began his experimental work leading to vaccination or the preventive inoculation against anthrax and hydrophobia, thus opening up the field of immunology. At this time Dr. Sternberg, Dr. T. J. Burrill, professor of botany at the University of Illinois, and Dr. H. J. Detmers, of the federal Department of Agriculture, were almost the only persons in this country who were engaged in the study of bacteria. Thus, it is seen that the significance of sanitary science, and incidentally of bacteria, was recognized at a very early date. Fragmentary though the treatment of the subject of bacteria must have been at this time, before a decade passed, as a result of intensive work with the newly discovered method of plate cultivation, bacteriology became a study of commanding importance.

    An account of the early development of bacteriology in the University would be incomplete without the mention of Dr. Henry Sewall, who, from 1882 to 1889, was Professor of Physiology. Though only twenty-seven years of age at the time of his appointment, he had been trained under Martin at the Johns Hopkins University and had also studied abroad. Indirectly, he had acquired some knowledge of the work being done on bacteria, since he had been closely associated with G. M. Sternberg, who had worked as a guest in Martin’s laboratory. Hence, he was familiar in a general way with the subject when he arrived in Ann Arbor, where he became an intimate colleague of Vaughan. Together the two young men frequently discussed the germ theory, and there is no doubt but that the convictions of the young biologically trained physiologist carried the day.

    Fifty years later, in the closing paragraph of his book, Society and the Natural Law (p. 78), Sewall recalled the course in sanitary science and paid a tribute to Vaughan:

    [Dr. Vaughan] was a pioneer in a Golden Age, and in virile, emphatic teaching he led his class to see with him the formation of organic compounds in plants, their metabolism in the animal. He told of the ferments and germs and their relations to health and disease. He invented a course in hygiene which was a forerunner of our noble institutions of Preventive Medicine. The largest lecture room became crowded with students who relished with zest a culture which included the motivation of their own bodies in health and disease, but stressed above all the mastery of man over his environment and his fate.

    The course called Sanitary Science was given by Dr. Vaughan to students of the Department of Literature, Science, and the Arts for a decade. In 1884 he also introduced in the Department of Chemistry a practical course, Sanitary Examinations, dealing with the analysis of such materials as water, foods, and drugs. It was later transferred to the Hygienic Laboratory and in 1892 was designated Methods of Hygiene. Since 1890, separate courses in water analysis and food analysis have been given. The medical students were given a separate course of twenty lectures, Sanitary Science, from 1884 to 1891, when it was divided into two courses, Bacteriology and Hygiene. The latter was given by Vaughan until his retirement in 1921.

    By 1885 the growing importance of the study of bacteria was recognized, and a special course for medical students, the Study of Bacteria (ten lectures), was listed in the University Calendar for 1885-86, and again in the next two years. Unfortunately, nothing definite is known regarding these lectures. From items in the students’ publication, The Chronicle, it would appear that the lectures were given by Vaughan and Sewall. In the issue of January 31, 1885 (p. 156), Vaughan was reported as “giving the seniors some very interesting talks on Bacteria.” And again on March 14 (p. 215), Sewall was said to be giving the freshman medical students weekly talks on the “bacteria theory.” His assistant, Dr. Harry Lum, was mentioned (p. 237) as carrying on an original investigation on the bacterial theory. Further, on March 12, 1887 (p. 70), the statement was made that Dr. Hugo Lupinski was requested to lecture on microorganisms. He certainly possessed at that time a copy of Hueppe’s Methoden. Dr. Otto Landman (’84, ’87m, A.M. hon. ’12) was very much interested in the subject and remembered staining for tubercular bacilli and diphtheria bacilli and trachoma.

    However scanty these lectures on bacteria may have been, it is noteworthy that in this period a significant contribution was made to the subject of immunity, then in its infancy. As indicated above, Sewall, though primarily a physiologist, was deeply interested in the rapidly developing subject of bacteriology. He was fascinated by Pasteur’s studies on vaccination. At the time it was believed that the poisonous properties of bacteria were due to basic products known as ptomaines. Sewall reasoned that immunity might be produced by repeated injections of the soluble products of bacteria, and since he himself was unable to work with these organisms, he looked about for a suitable substitute. The toxicity of the venom of the rattlesnake was known to be caused by soluble poisonous proteins. He gave pigeons repeated injections of small doses of the venom and rendered them refractory against seven to ten times the fatal dose. A short paper describing his experiments was published in the spring of 1887; it antedated by six months the first work on the production of immunity with the soluble products of Vibrion septique (Roux) and by three years the immunization of animals with tetanus and diphtheria toxins (Behring and Kitasato). His was the pioneer work in antivenom serum therapy.

    The recognition of Vaughan’s interest in the teaching of sanitary science led to his appointment in February, 1883, to the Michigan State Board of Health. He was a member of that board continuously, except during the period 1895-1901, until 1919, when the State Board of Health was abolished and the office of State Health Commissioner was created. In January, 1884, at a time when outbreaks of cheese poisoning were claiming attention, he urged upon the Board of Health the need of a fully equipped sanitation laboratory at the University, but no action was taken at that time. The suggestion was made again in October, 1886, and then the Board of Health requested the Board of Regents to consider the advisability of establishing a laboratory of hygiene in which original investigations — chemical, microscopical, and biological — should be carried on, and in which attention should be given to the analysis of water, the adulteration of food, and the practical investigation of other problems of sanitary science. A committee appeared before the Regents on December 7, 1886, and presented in full the needs of such a laboratory. To meet this and other requests the Regents asked the legislature of 1887 for an appropriation of $75,000 for laboratories of physics, hygiene, pathology, physiology, and histology. By act of the legislature, approved June 24, 1887, $35,000 was appropriated “for the construction of a building for scientific laboratories and for the equipment of the same.” It was obvious that the amount was inadequate to meet the needs of all the laboratories mentioned, and a committee of the Board of Regents on July 8, 1887, recommended the erection of a three-story brick building to accommodate at least two of the laboratories, those of hygiene and physics, at a cost not to exceed $28,000, which amount, by amendment, was increased to $30,000. Actually, when the building was completed there remained an unexpended balance of $176.93 which was used to buy apparatus for the Hygienic Laboratory.

    At the same time a committee was appointed to present a scheme for the establishment of a department of hygiene. The committee, on July 9, 1887, presented a report signed by V. C. Vaughan, A. B. Prescott, and John W. Langley recommending the establishment of a department of hygiene, the combination of the closely related subjects of hygiene and physiological chemistry in one chair, and the appointment of an instructor. The report was adopted, and Vaughan was appointed Professor of Hygiene and Physiological Chemistry and Director of the Hygienic Laboratory. At a meeting of the executive committee held the same day, Frederick George Novy (’86, Sc.D. ’90, ’91m, LL.D. Cincinnati ’20) was appointed Instructor in Hygiene and Physiological Chemistry.

    In October, 1887, the Regents accepted the architectural plans of Pond and Pond and awarded the contract for the building, which was to be completed on or before July 1, 1888. There were the usual delays in construction, and the building, the east half of the present West Physics Laboratory, was not completed until the late fall of 1888. The Department of Physics was given the basement and first floor, and the Hygienic Laboratory occupied the second floor and the attic. These quarters were soon outgrown. In 1903 the Hygienic Laboratory was moved to the present West Medical Building and in 1926 to its present location in the East Medical Building.

    The Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Michigan was the first of its kind in this country; that of the United States Marine Hospital was started in New York in August, 1887, was moved to Washington in 1891, and is now the National Institute of Health; the hygienic laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania was established in 1890; and the Bender Hygienic Laboratory at Albany was founded in 1896.

    Immediately after the establishment of the Hygienic Laboratory, work was carried on in rooms in the old Chemical Laboratory (the present Economics-Pharmacology Building) pending the erection of the new Medical Building. Chemical analyses of water and foods were made, but attempts to do bacteriological work were not satisfactory. It was evident that a first hand knowledge of bacteriological techniques could only be obtained by going abroad for a course of instruction in the new science. Accordingly, Vaughan and Novy went for such a course to Koch’s laboratory, the Hygienic Institute of the University of Berlin, in the summer of 1888. At the same time they purchased the necessary equipment for the new laboratory. Later they visited the laboratory of Pasteur in Paris.

    The first systematic lectures on the subject of bacteriology were given in the fall of 1888 by Vaughan in his course, Sanitary Science. These lectures he gave also in the following two years, when the designation of the course was changed to Hygiene. Vaughan continued to teach this course until his retirement in 1921. From 1891 to 1934, inclusive, the formal lecture course on general bacteriology was given by Novy. The course was required of all medical students, and also of students of dentistry from 1891 to 1901. In 1935 and for the next few years the lecture course was presented by Dr. Malcolm Herman Soule (’21, Sc.D. ’24, LL.D. Saint Bonaventure’s College ’28), but because of a change in the curriculum in 1938-39 it was no longer required of the medical students, though it continued to be given to nonmedical students. Until the time of this change, the course had been taken by about 8,700 students. A full synopsis of the course is to be found in the Announcement of the Medical School (1938-39, p. 66).

    In 1888 an attempt was made at giving instruction in bacteriology in the Department of Pathology. Dr. Heneage Gibbes of London, England, appointed Professor of Pathology, began work in January, 1888, and continued in service until 1895. In the basement of the new Anatomical Laboratory Building he fitted out a small space for bacteriological work. In 1885 Dr. Gibbes had been associated with Dr. E. Klein on the British Cholera Commission and had some acquaintance with bacteriological methods, but unfortunately he did not believe in the germ theory. Hence, though he offered a course in practical bacteriology from 1888 to 1890, very few students were attracted. To Gibbes, the pathogenic germs, such as the cholera and tubercle bacilli, were merely adventitious organisms.

    In the fall of 1888 the new quarters of the Hygienic Laboratory were equipped for work, and in January, 1889, the first laboratory course in bacteriology was offered in the University. It is listed in the University Calendar for 1888-89 (p. 59) as Original Research in the Causation of Disease. Some very short courses in bacteriology had been given in the East as early as 1887. Perhaps the first course given in New York in 1887 was that by Dr. John E. Weeks (’81m, Sc.D. hon. ’12). The course at Michigan was the first comprehensive, experimental course to be offered in this country. It was given daily, afternoons, and on Saturday morning, twenty-four hours weekly, for three months. It was an elective open to students of the Literary and Medical departments. The first class consisted of nine students; the second, beginning in April, had fourteen. In 1889-90, three such courses were given to sixty-three students; in 1890-91, to seventy-one students.

    The new four-year course in medicine went into effect in 1890-91, and at that time the three-month course in laboratory work in bacteriology, given three times each year, became a required subject for the first-year medical students, but remained optional to others. The medical curriculum was revised in 1900-1901 by the introduction of the block system, wherein all the laboratory courses were placed on an eight-week basis. At the same time the laboratory work in bacteriology was transferred to the sophomore year. As a rule, four courses of instruction in the laboratory, each for eight weeks, were given each year. The schedule continued for ten years. The faculty of the College of Dental Surgery took advantage of the shortening of the course, and in 1902-3 made it a required subject for students of dentistry, which it has continued to be ever since.

    Vaughan had become Dean of the Department of Medicine and Surgery in 1891. He remained Director of the Hygienic Laboratory until 1909, when he was succeeded by Novy, who had held a full professorship of bacteriology since 1902.

    In 1910-11, as a result of changes in the schedule of studies, the laboratory work in bacteriology was returned to the first-year program of the medical students, in which it has remained to the present time. Moreover, the duration of the course for the medical students was restored to three months, lasting from March to June. With this new schedule, the first period of eight weeks was reserved for the dental students, and the second period of about ten weeks was reserved for the students of other schools and colleges.

    In 1923-24 the laboratory period for medical students was extended through the entire second semester, and attendance each afternoon and Saturday morning was required. In 1940 the laboratory period for medical students was cut in half — to three afternoons a week for the semester. In the first semester, two eight-week courses were given to students in dentistry and in other schools.

    The growth and development of bacteriology, or, rather, microbiology, during the past fifty years has made it necessary to alter and expand the laboratory work so as to include the study of new pathogenic bacteria, protozoa, viruses, worms, molds, yeasts, and the methods of serology. The work in bacteriology was conducted by Novy from 1889, when the first course was given, until his retirement in 1935, when it was taken over by Soule. During the fifty years from January, 1889, to January, 1939, instruction in this course was given to about 10,400 students.

    Within a few years after the instruction in bacteriology began, requests came from students for further work in this subject. Accordingly, in 1896, a formal course named Special Methods in Bacteriology was given, and this in time was designated Advanced Bacteriology. The student, after acquiring some familiarity with glass blowing and the preparation of Pasteur pipets and blood pipets, worked with filters, germicidal tests, the inoculation and bleeding of animals, the preparation of vaccines, immunization procedures, and serum reactions. In 1905, the first classwork on the pathogenic protozoa in this country was introduced. In the forty years since its establishment nearly seven hundred students have availed themselves of this opportunity for advanced work. As a supplement to the advanced work, for more than twenty years a journal club, or seminar, has fostered the interest of the students.

    Owing to the frequency of outbreaks of rabies in the state, the Pasteur Institute was set up as a part of the Hygienic Laboratory in 1903, with Dr. Thomas Benton Cooley (’91, ’95m) in charge. He was succeeded in 1905 by Dr. James Gordon Cumming (’03m, D.P.H. Harvard ’15), who in turn was followed in 1916 by Dr. Herbert William Emerson (Ph.C. ’01, B.S. Pharm. ’02, ’15m). Emerson held the position for the remainder of the period. Between March 5, 1903, and August 23, 1941, the Institute provided Pasteur treatment to 2,815 persons with no case of paralysis or rabies following treatment. The bulk of its work has consisted in the examination of 7,772 animals for suspected rabies. Of these, 90 per cent were dogs, and the rest were chiefly cats and other domestic animals, with a few wild animals such as skunks and raccoons.

    The Hygienic Laboratory, from its beginning, was called upon to render diagnostic aid to physicians and health officers, by examinations of blood, pus, sputum, and water. Scores of such examinations were made annually until the State Board of Health, through legislative action, established, in 1907, a special laboratory for that purpose at Lansing.

    In addition to teaching and diagnostic service, the Hygienic Laboratory has had research as a third objective. During more than half a century since its establishment this objective has been paramount in the endeavors of its staff and is being maintained at the highest possible level. As the result of its contributions the laboratory is known far and wide and has more than justified the expectations raised at the time it was founded.


    • Calendar, Univ. Mich., 1880-1914.
    • Catalogue …, Univ. Mich., 1914-23.
    • Catalogue and Register, Univ. Mich., 1923-27. Hinsdale, Burke A.History of the University of Michigan. Ed. by Isaac N. Demmon. Ann Arbor: Univ. Mich., 1906.
    • Kahn, Reuben L.”Department of Chemical Laboratories, University of Michigan Hospital.”Methods and Problems of Medical Education, ser. 18 (1930): 75-82.
    • Lombard, Warren P.”Henry Sewall and the Department of Physiology.”Mich. Alum., 15 (1909): 238-46, 296-302. Also in: Physician and Surgeon, 31 (1909): 107-27.
    • Memorial Meeting for Victor Clarence Vaughan … (Univ. Mich. Offic. Publ., Vol. 31, No. 35 [1930]).
    • [News notes.]Chronicle (title varies), Jan. 31 and Mar. 14, 1885; Mar. 12, 1887.
    • President’s Report, Univ. Mich., 1876-1940.
    • Proceedings of the Board of Regents …, 1886-1940.
    • Sewall, Henry. Society and the Natural Law. Boston: R. G. Badger, 1933.
    • Vaughan, Victor C.A Doctor’s Memories. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1926.