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Mel Santer Delves Into Science's Past

Years of teaching the course “Historical Introduction to Microbiology” with his wife Ursula Victor Santer led Emeritus Professor of Biology Melvin Santer to consider the historical context of discovery regarding the cause of infectious-contagious diseases.

As a result of this interest, two articles by Santer focusing on the history—rather than the future—of science have been published this fall in academic journals.

One article appears as the cover story in the Autumn 2009 issue of the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine and deals with Richard Bradley, the first Professor of Botany at Cambridge University in England. From 1714-1721, Bradley proposed what Santer calls a “unified, unique, living agent theory” of the cause of plants’ and animals’ infectious diseases. Bradley found that a microscopic world of “insects” caused infectious diseases in plants. Therefore, because of the structural and functional similarities between plants and animals, he concluded that these microscopic organisms caused human and animal infectious diseases as well. However, says Santer, his theory was rejected by his scientific peers.

Santer last wrote about Bradley in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society in 2007, where he discussed Bradley’s discovery of an ecological niche near Naples, Italy that contained the first description of green sulfur photosynthetic bacteria. These organisms were used as experimental material in the 20th century to study photosynthesis.

The second article by Santer that was published this fall also appears in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society and is about Joseph Lister (of Listerine fame). Lister and Robert Koch were the first scientists to demonstrate that a pure culture of one bacterium could cause a specific disease. In Lister’s case the “disease” was the fermentation of milk.

Santer’s recent publications are part of a larger project. He is writing a history of how diseases described as infectious or contagious have been understood, from ancient times to the beginning of the 20th century.

“At each period in history humans were faced with these terrible diseases,” he says. “In each period they tried to explain the causes of these diseases, and they relied on religious and philosophic positions to help explain causes.  All of this effort over a 2,000-year period did not lead to explanations of the cause, but the effort to do so is fascinating part of the history of western civilization.”

Santer says his interest in science from a historical standpoint is primarily motivated by “incredible curiosity,” but he also believes that knowing the past is vital to making progress in the present. “Understanding where we are now,” he says, “depends on understanding where we came from.”

-Brenna McBride

Students cross in front of Founders Hall.

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