Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 43, Issue 3, pp 459–491 | Cite as

Spontaneous Generation and Disease Causation: Anton de Bary’s Experiments with Phytophthora infestans and Late Blight of Potato

  • Christina Matta


Anton de Bary is best known for his elucidation of the life cycle of Phytopthora infestans, the causal organism of late blight of potato and the crop losses that caused famine in nineteenth-century Europe. But while practitioner histories often claim this accomplishment as a founding moment of modern plant pathology, closer examination of de Bary’s experiments and his published work suggest that his primary motiviation for pursing this research was based in developmental biology, not agriculture. De Bary shied away from making any recommendations for agricultural practice, and instead focused nearly exclusively on spontaneous generation and fungal development – both concepts promoted through prize questions posted by the Académie des Sciences in the 1850s and 1860s. De Bary’s submission to the Académie’s 1859 Alhumbert prize question illustrates his own contributions to debates about spontaneous generation and demonstrates the practical applications of seemingly philosophical questions – such as the origin of life.


Late blight Potato Anton de Bary Phytopthora (Peronospora) infestans Plant pathology Plant physiology Botany Spontaneous generation Mycology 


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Archival Materials

  1. de Bary, Anton. Undated. de Bary Nachlass, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz.Google Scholar
  2. J.D. Hooker to Charles Darwin, 3 March 1874, Cambridge University Library, DAR 103: 189–192.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Technical Communication ProgramUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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