Charles Kollmer

Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, Princeton University

2019 to 2020
Research Fellow

From Elephant to Bacterium: Microbes, Microbiologists, and the Chemical Order of Nature

In the first half of the twentieth-century, scientists isolated microbes in pure cultures to analyze the relationship between nutrition, metabolism, and growth in increasingly precise chemical terms. Comparative studies of microorganisms helped elucidate what I refer to as ‘the chemical order of nature,’ a way of looking at life as an essentially unified phenomenon, composed modularly from a finite number of common chemical building blocks. By mid-century, this view of life reached its culmination in the ubiquitous use of the bacterium E. coli as an experimental stand-in for a generic cell. My dissertation reconstructs how this radical shift in the status of microbial life happened and interrogates its enduring consequences for the way we define and understand life. It tells this story in its transnational sweep, reconstructing the work of microbiologists in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.