SOMETIMES, to achieve broad cultural immortality, it’s less what you made your name in — and much more what you put your name on.
That is why, in the wider world beyond the lab, Robert Bunsen’s name burns so bright. And if anyone understands the conditions for how our culture behaves (and mutates), it’s Julius Richard Petri.
For Petri, immortality is a dish best served with his invention.
As a man of science and bacteria and hygiene, Petri wrote nearly 150 papers, many emerging out of his work with tuberculosis patients. Yet the reason most of the planet knows his name nearly a century after his death is more shallow.
As “shallow,” that is, as the classroom-common Petri dish, or “Petri plate,” that bears his surname — the great, thin invention that forever changed how most every lab scientist works. And to salute Petri’s birth — and the birth of his best-known contribution — Google today features an animated Doodle of a half-dozen Petri plates. (Press play and the six dishes are swabbed by hand; then bacteria grows into the letters “G-o-o-g-l-e.”)
Before Petri came along, cultures were grown in glass tubes. In the 1880s, however, in the German lab of Robert Koch — aka the father of modern bacteriology — agar-based nutrient media were grown in open dishes, but placed beneath bell jars, readily leading to all matter of contamination. It was Petri, working as a military physician for Koch, who is credited with cleaning things up considerably, devising the shallow, enclosed dishes — one slightly larger than its companion plate — that every beginning bio-student soon grows into knowing.
Petri was born on this day in 1852, in Barmen, Germany. He would study at Berlin’s Kaiser-Wilhelm Academy for Military Physicians, and then the city’s Charité Hospital, before working in Koch’s Imperial Health Office. Besides creating Petri plates, he also helped hone techniques for cloning bacterial colonies using agar cultures.
Petri died in 1921 in Zeitz, Germany, but his invention — now in polystyrene form — lives on in most every lab, just as his name does in the culture.
Happy birthday, Herr Petri.
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