HS-102 Readings

The Bacterial Revolution




     The Bacterial Revolution, beginning in the 1870's, involved the discovery that sub-microscopic organisms were the main cause for disease.

    Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease was developed as a result of his observations of the role of micro-organisms in the fermentation processes involved in the manufacture of wine, cheese, bread, and beer.

    Robert Koch, a German physician, and others who followed his lead,  were able to isolate specific types of bacteria as causes for specific diseases.

    The English surgeon, Joseph Lister, noticed the greater likelihood of infections in compound fractures where the skin was broken. He introduced the use of chemical disinfectants, and the practice of sterilization of all hands, tools and equipment in the operating room.

    As these practices were introduced, hospitals became relatively safe places to go for treatment. Most important, the preventive solutions to a whole host of infectious diseases were being found.

    The bacterial revolution is probably the greatest achievement in the history of medicine.

    The impact was to cause a substantial lowering of mortality, especially in cities. Population had been growing in Europe ever since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Fertility rates had been steady or slightly increasing because of increased food supplies, while mortality had been declining as periodic visitations of the plague came to an end, and progress was made in combating smallpox durng the 18th century and the early 19th century. In about 1875, fertility and mortality rates both began to drop at a rapid rate. The decrease in mortality was caused by a combination of the Bacterial Revolution and public health measures, which prevented disease by purifying water supplies. The decrease in fertility was caused by urbanization and the more obvious economic burden of caring for children in the urban setting. Furthermore, industrialization had created a variety of employment and career paths which required years of education and training. The costs of these extra years were borne by families who became well aware that too many children could not be afforded. These changes are shown in the Demographic Transition graph, which traced changing fertility and mortality throughout the years of industrialization.