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

  • Mathias GroteEmail author
Original Paper
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. New Perspectives in the History of Twentieth-Century Life Sciences


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.


Microbiology Pure culture Purity Classification Microbial ecology Petri dish Winogradsky column 



I would like to thank the editors of this special issue, Robert Meunier and Kärin Nickelsen, as well as two reviewers for their comments and suggestions. I am also grateful to The American Society of Microbiology Archives, and especially Jeff Karr, for help and access to materials, and the permission to reproduce a figure from society publications. Warwick Anderson provided an inspiring comment at a moment when my only task was to shorten the manuscript, and which thus has to be spelled out elsewhere.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für GeschichtswissenschaftenHumboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

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