UW-Madison Dept of Bacteriology

Department of Bacteriology History

I. Early Instruction and Research

The first UW Bacteriology class taught in 1881-83 by Professor William Trelease, who incorporated bacteriology into the general botany course. This is believed to be the first bacteriology class taught at any American university. Professor Edward Birge (Botany) organized the first formal course in bacteriology in 1886. Before the College of Agriculture was established, early bacteriologists were housed in Agriculture Hall, later renamed South Hall. The first bacteriology professor was Harry Russell, who joined the university faculty in 1893. In 1889 the College of Agriculture was established, and in 1903, when the new Agriculture Hall was built, university bacteriologists moved there. Early bacteriologists include Russell, Edwin G Hastings (1898), and W. D. Frost (1895). In 1907 Russell became Dean of the College of Agriculture.

II. Establishment of the Department

In 1914 the Department of Agricultural Bacteriology was formally established with E. G. Hastings as the first chair. In 1913 E. B. Fred was hired in the College and began the legacy that made UW a world leader in the study of biological nitrogen fixation. In 1934 E. B. Fred was made dean of the Graduate School, and in 1943 dean of the College of Agriculture. In 1945 the Regents chose Fred to become the president of the University of Wisconsin, a position he held until 1958. In 1947 the departmental name was changed from Agricultural Bacteriology to Bacteriology. During this era, the department added notable faculty, including William Wright in 1914, Ira Baldwin in 1927, Elizabeth McCoy in 1930 and William Sarles in 1932. In 1943, Dr. McCoy became the second woman at the University, outside of the fields of home economics and nursing, to attain the rank of full professor. Dr. Baldwin had a long career of service to the university. In 1932, he became Assistant Dean of the College of Agriculture, in 1942 chair of the Department of Bacteriology, in 1944 Dean of the Graduate School, in 1945 Dean of the College of Agriculture, in 1948 Vice President of the University, in 1958 Special Assistant to the President of the University, and in 1966 Vice Present Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of the Department .

III. The Fred Hall Era

In 1955 a building dedicated to bacteriology research and instruction was built. This was later named E. B. Fred Hall to commemorate Fred's contributions to the department and the University. In 1958 E. L. Tatum became the first Bacteriology alumnus to win the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology (with J. Lederberg and G. W. Beadle).

IV. The Microbial Sciences Building and the future of the department

In 2004, E. B Fred Hall was demolished and the Microbial Sciences Building was built on the same site. In August 2007, the department moved into the new MSB. Also in 2007, four faculty from the former Food Microbiology and Toxicology Department join Bacteriology, greatly enhancing the Department's expertise in food microbiology. The department looks forward to many years of productive contributions to the university's mission and to the field of microbiology.

Major Research Contributions Throughout the Years by former Bacteriology Faculty

Food and Dairy Microbiology

1894 Russell solves the problem of incomplete sterilization of canned peas at Landreth Canning Company in Manitowoc, which changes industrial sterilization practices nationally. He traced the "exploding cans" problem to bacteria that fermented sugar and produced gas and solved the problem by increasing pressure without increasing the sterilization time.

1894-1907 Russell realized the prevalence of tuberculosis in Wisconsin dairy cows and organized a statewide program of education, with changes in state law, that dramatically reduced the level of the disease, with significant enhancement of Wisconsin's prestige as a dairy state. Starting in 1899, E.G. Hastings was a collaborator and this led to the manufacture and distribution of "Koch's Old Tuberculin" by the Bacteriology Department.

1895 W.D. Frost began his studies on streptococci in milk, developing detection methods and studying antagonism among bacteria.

1899-1901 Russell and E.G. Hastings demonstrated at industrial scale that lower temperature pasteurization kills tuberculosis bacilli without damaging the appearance of milk, helping increase the use of pasteurization of the Wisconsin milk supply.

1889 E. G. Hastings begins work with Russell on pasteurization of milk, cream, whey. He recognized the need for reliable starer cultures in manufacture of Swiss cheese and manufactured and supplied starter cultures to cheese makers.

1901-1903 Russell and S.M. Babcock (Agricultural Chemistry, now Biochemistry) demonstrated the value and utility of cold curing cheese, which greatly improved the quality of Wisconsin cheese as well as the profitability.

1909 Frost developed methods for making dehydrated culture media and invented the Frost gasometer.

1910's Hastings manufactured and distributed johnin, a diagnostic of Johne's disease in cattle, as well the antigen used in the serological test for Bang's disease in cattle.

1930's Elizabeth McCoy became involved with staphylococci food poisoning outbreaks and ecological studies of survival and growth of staphylococci in dairy barns, manure and soils. She also studied botulinum food poisoning from canned bread, pheasants, smoked fish and worked on vaccine development.

1966 E.M. Foster became head of the Food Research Institute when it moved to Madison. Subsequently, under Professor Foster's leadership, the Department of Food Microbiology and Toxicology was established.

Biological Nitrogen Fixation

1913 E. B. Fred was hired and began the legacy that made UW a world leader in the study of biological nitrogen-fixation. Early work involved the basic chemical processes by which nitrogen- fixing bacteria of leguminous plants assimilate atmospheric nitrogen. Fred also studied cultural and physiological properties of rhizobia, longevity in soil and infection mechanisms with collaborators W. H. Wright, McCoy , I. L. Baldwin and P.W. Wilson.

1920's and 1930's The Department supplied cultures of rhizobia to Wisconsin farmers for nitrogen- fixing inoculants for various legumes and developed large-scale culture methods.

1932 Fred, Baldwin and McCoy published the definitive text on nitrogen fixation, "Root-nodule Bacteria and Leguminous Plants". This is still affectionately known as the "root nodule bible".

1930's P.W. Wilson began his studies of the biochemistry of nitrogen fixation, documented in his book "The Biochemistry of Symbiotic Nitrogen Fixation" published in 1940.

1978 Vinod K. Shah and W. J. Brill identified the critical region of nitrogenase, the enzyme responsible for converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia.

Bacterial fermentations

1920's Fred and Peterson (Biochemistry) solved fermentation problems at Commercial Solvents Company in Indiana and Illinois. Throughout the years, they worked on many other bacterial fermentations, including the production of acetone during WWII.

1920's Fred and Peterson studied fermentations of corn silage, pickles, sauerkraut. This research led to mechanisms and causative agents of lactic acid and acetic acid production and other products from carbohydrates of plant origin and eventually to fermentations yielding acetone and butanol. Corn and molasses were used as substrates.

1930's Departmental collaborations with numerous faculty with Red Star Yeast Company (Milwaukee) and other companies led to improved fermentations and industrial support for outstanding graduate students.

1940's McCoy studied bacteriophage interference in commercial fermentations, phage characterizations by serology, phage-host patterns, phage growth cycle, host resistance, and produced early electron micrographs of phage.

1940's McCoy and associates were instrumental in classifying the organism responsible for butyl alcohol fermentations, Clostridum acetobutylicum, maximizing productivity and identifying other products. They worked on commercial operations and patented solutions to bacteriophage outbreak problems.

Antibiotics Research

1940's During WWII W. H. Peterson (Biochemistry), Marv Johnson (Biochemistry), E. McCoy and R. H. Burris (Biochemistry) worked on aspects of antibiotics production on campus, while K. Raper was working at the Northen Region Research Labs in Peoria and W. B. Sarles was in Washington D.C. and the United Kingdom. Raper's isolate of Penicillium chrysogenum was the parent strain of all high-producing strains.

1950's McCoy developed screening methods for new antibiotics and discovered oligomycin an important enzyme inhibitor. McCoy also studied the genetic nature of antibiotic resistance as well as changes in host flora after administration of antibiotics.

1950's Stanley Knight identified triacetin, a treatment of athlete's foot and skin fungus. This was licensed to Ayerst and sold under the name Enzactin and became WARF's 10th most profitable patent.

Waste treatment research

1904 Russell and E. F. Turneaure (Engineering) studied the process of sewage treatment and disposal including the survival of bacterial sewage organisms in the Chicago Drainage Canal. They showed that the typhoid fever causative agent did not survive the rigors of travel through the canal and rivers leading to the St Louis water supply.

1910's Russell, Turneaure and D. Mead worked on improvement of wastes of the cheese and butter industries.

1940's Sarles, Kessler and Rohlich (Civil Eng) investigated new methods to test for efficiency of the activated sludge method of sewage treatment.

1960s McCoy and UW engineers studied the microbiology of the ponding process for feedlot wastes.

Environmental Microbiology and Microbial Ecology

1930's McCoy looked at the roles of bacteria in fresh water including precipitation of calcium carbonate deposits in fresh water lakes. She showed that fungi and actinomycetes were part of the aquatic flora; and studied alewife and salmon spawning in polluted rivers and when returning to open lakes.

1970's Thomas Brock began his pioneering work on the study of life in extreme environments. He isolated Thermus aquaticus, the bacterium which produces Taq polymerase. This enzyme is used in the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a DNA amplification procedure that is central to much of the biotechnology industry.

1970's Thomas Brock studied the microbiology of Lake Mendota and other lakes, establishing basal data for the development of the microbial ecology of freshwater.

1970's T. Kent Kirk began his work on lignin degradation, which is a critical issue for the pulp and paper industry. He was the first to identify the enzymes involved in lignin degradation and he developed detailed descriptions of their catalytic mechanisms.

Host-Parasite Interactions

1980's-1990's Marsha Betley made important contributions to the field of bacterial toxins, including their structure, function, evolution, role in pathogenesis and relationship to their host bacteria.

Molecular and Physiological Analyses of Microbial Processes

More recently the department's research has focused largely on the fundamental processes that underlie the many different properties of microbes. Areas of research include decoding the genetic information of microbes, unraveling microbial metabolic pathways, undertaking molecular modeling studies, understanding communication and regulatory mechanisms of microbes and determining the mechanisms that enable microbes to survive in extreme environments. These research accomplisments are document more fully on the research sections of this website.

1960's-1980's Jack Pate became a world authority on bacterial motility, particularly the "gliding motility" of Cytophaga, showing that the cells move by controlling the motion of the cell surface.

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Department of Bacteriology
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Microbial Sciences Building
1550 Linden Dr. Madison, WI 53706

Phone (608) 262-2914
Department Chair: Richard Gourse
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