Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 40, Issue 1, pp 109–145 | Cite as

The “Cycle of Life” in Ecology: Sergei Vinogradskii’s Soil Microbiology, 1885–1940

  • Lloyd T. AckertJr.Email author


Historians of science have attributed the emergence of ecology as a discipline in the late nineteenth century to the synthesis of Humboldtian botanical geography and Darwinian evolution. In this essay, I begin to explore another, largely neglected but very important dimension of this history. Using Sergei Vinogradskii’s career and scientific research trajectory as a point of entry, I illustrate the manner in which microbiologists, chemists, botanists, and plant physiologists inscribed the concept of a “cycle of life” into their investigations. Their research transformed a longstanding notion into the fundamental approaches and concepts that underlay the new ecological disciplines that emerged in the 1920s. Pasteur thus joins Humboldt as a foundational figure in ecological thinking, and the broader picture that emerges of the history of ecology explains some otherwise puzzling features of that discipline – such as its fusion of experimental and natural historical methodologies. Vinogradskii’s personal “cycle of life” is also interesting as an example of the interplay between Russian and Western European scientific networks and intellectual traditions. Trained in Russia to investigate nature as a super-organism comprised of circulating energy, matter, and life; over the course of five decades – in contact with scientists and scientific discourses in France, Germany, and Switzerland – he developed a series of research methods that translated the concept of a “cycle of life” into an ecologically conceived soil science and microbiology in the 1920s and 1930s. These methods, bolstered by his authority as a founding father of microbiology, captured the attention of an international network of scientists. Vinogradskii’s conceptualization of the “cycle of life” as chemosynthesis, autotrophy, and global nutrient cycles attracted the attention of ecosystem ecologists; and his methods appealed to practitioners at agricultural experiment stations and microbiological institutes in the United States, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union.


autotrophism chemosynthesis cycle of life ecology nitrification plant physiology soil microbiology Sergei Nikolaevich Vinogradskii (Winogradsky) 


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© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryYale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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