Petri dish versus Winogradsky column: a longue durée perspective on purity and diversity in microbiology, 1880s–1980s

History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 40 (1):11 (2017)
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Abstract

Microbial diversity has become a leitmotiv of contemporary microbiology, as epitomized in the concept of the microbiome, with significant consequences for the classification of microbes. In this paper, I contrast microbiology’s current diversity ideal with its influential predecessor in the twentieth century, that of purity, as epitomized in Robert Koch’s bacteriological culture methods. Purity and diversity, the two polar opposites with regard to making sense of the microbial world, have been operationalized in microbiological practice by tools such as the “clean” Petri dish versus the “dirty” Winogradsky column, the latter a container that mimics, in the laboratory, the natural environment that teems with diverse microbial life. By tracing the impact of the practices and concepts of purity and diversity on microbial classification through a history of techniques, tools, and manuals, I show the shifts in these concepts over the last century. Juxtaposing the dominant purity ideal with the more restricted, but continuously articulated, diversity ideal in microbial ecology not only provides a fresh perspective on microbial classification that goes beyond its intellectual history, but also contextualizes the present focus on diversity. By covering the period of a century, this paper outlines a revised longue durée historiography that takes its inspiration from artifacts, such as Petri dish and the Winogradsky column, and thereby simple, but influential technologies that often remain invisible. This enables the problem of historical continuity in modern science to be addressed and the accelerationist narratives of its development to be countered.

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