Society Founded by "Lost Souls" Among Naturalists

    Barbara Hyde

    At a meeting of the Society of American Naturalists in 1898, one colleague remarked to another, bacteriologist Edwin O. Jordan, that "you bacteriologists seem to be wandering around like lost souls_why don't you have a society of your own?" Acting on this suggestion, Alexander C. Abbott, Herbert W. Conn, and Jordan sent a letter to about 40 bacteriologists in the United States and Canada proposing the formation of a society of American bacteriologists.

    The first meeting, 27_29 December 1899, in New Haven, Conn., attracted 59 attendees and 26 paper presentations. W. T. Sedgwick was elected president, and Conn was elected secretary-treasurer of the fledgling Society of American Bacteriologists. The name was changed to the American Society for Microbiology by vote of the membership in 1960.

    In addition to being lost souls among the naturalists, the three founding members of the Society also shared career interests in public health. Abbott, who completed a machinist's apprenticeship before going on to medical school, was graduated from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. After additional training as a pathologist, he was introduced to bacteriology via a position studying commercial disinfectants at Johns Hopkins University. He subsequently became professor of hygiene and bacteriology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was instrumental in originating the first graduate course in public health in the United States. Abbott published several papers on subjects such as cholera and diphtheria and authored two texts, Principles of Bacteriology and The Hygiene of Transmissible Diseases, Their Causation, Modes of Dissemination and Method of Prevention.

    After receiving a doctorate in biology from Johns Hopkins University, Conn accepted a position at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he established and headed the biology department until his death. He was the author of 22 books and was known as an outstanding teacher. For several years he directed the marine biological laboratories at Cold Spring Harbor, and he was instrumental in founding the laboratory section of the American Public Health Association. Conn successfully traced an outbreak of typhoid at the college to contaminated oysters, the first demonstration of oysters as a vehicle for this disease, and served as director of the Connecticut State Board of Health Laboratory for more than a decade. He was especially renowned for his pioneering work in dairy bacteriology, including the use of pure cultures for making dairy products and the promotion of sanitary practices on dairy farms. He served as president of the Society in 1902.

    Jordan received a doctorate in zoology from Clark University and then accepted an appointment at the University of Chicago, where he guided the development of a department of bacteriology, ultimately assuming its chairmanship until his retirement. A respected teacher, he was known to his students as the "Chief." His interests in bacteriology were quite broad, ranging from topics such as the self-purification of streams to bacterial oxidation-reduction potentials. He published articles on water purification, sewage disposal, food poisoning, pasteurization of milk, and the bacteriology of typhoid fever. In later years, he studied respiratory diseases and produced the book Epidemic Influenza as well as a textbook, General Bacteriology, that was first published in 1908 and was continued through 14 editions. Jordan served as secretary-treasurer of the Society in 1902-1903 and as its president in 1905.

    At its inception, the Society's science was focused on improving public health, and the Society's mission still retains that aim among its goals. As now formally stated, the Society's mission is "to advance the microbiological sciences worldwide as a vehicle for understanding basic life processes and to promote the application and sustainability of the knowledge gained for improved health and economic and environmental well-being." ASM seeks to fulfill its mission by disseminating information, stimulating research, promoting education, advancing the profession, and promoting the application of the microbiological sciences.

    One of the principal ways in which ASM disseminates information is through an active, prolific publications program. The Society began publishing the Journal of Bacteriology in 1916 as a joint venture with the Williams & Wilkins Company and now publishes 10 peer-reviewed journals as well as the monthly periodical ASM News. Sent to all members, ASM News contains information on a broad range of scientific and policy issues of interest to the worldwide community of microbiologists, as well as news about ASM activities. All the Society's journal publications are also now available online.

    In the 1920s, the Society published a loose-leaf Manual of Methods for the Pure Culture of Bacteria, followed by the first edition of Bergey's Manual of Determinative Bacteriology, and established a monograph series. The current ASM Press (formerly the Books Division) now has more than 100 titles on its backlist and expects to publish over 20 books in 1999.

    The Society has held an annual or general meeting continuously since 1899 except for three years during World War II, when transportation was limited. The first Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) was sponsored in 1961. The General and ICAAC meetings in recent years have attracted 12,000-15,000 registrants each and have provided forums for thousands of scientific presentations in addition to several hundred exhibitors. The Society also has a growing Conferences program, organizing smaller meetings attracting up to 500 registrants, and regularly cosponsors meetings with other scientific organizations. Over 1,000 individuals receive continuing medical education credits through ASM's ACCME-accredited scientific programs.

    Underlying ASM's dedication to the advancement of scientific knowledge is its commitment to ensure that science serves the public interest. The Society's Public and Scientific Affairs Board, established in 1979, monitors legislative and regulatory issues and encourages the adoption of sound public policies affecting the disciplines of microbiology. It responds to policy makers who may request or require an understanding of current research and technology in microbiology. The Board is often in the forefront on issues of direct interest to ASM members, such as funding for research and training, clinical laboratory testing issues central to the diagnosis and prevention of infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance and emerging infectious diseases, culture collections, biological weapons security, and microbial genomics and biological diversity, as well as developments in policy areas, including intellectual property, food and drinking water safety, biotechnology regulations, and environmental policy.

    The Society has long had an active interest in the teaching of microbiology. A formal Committee on Education, which focused on introducing microbiology into high school and other courses in biology, was established in 1958. The subsequent growth in educational activities led to the establishment of a Board of Education and Training (BET) in 1971. The BET develops and implements programs designed to improve the quality of education in the life sciences at all levels. Career information, educational fellowships, and a guide to financial aid resources are available through the Board, and it is has specific programs to encourage microbiologists' participation in kindergarten through high school classroom activities. Its undergraduate faculty enhancement programs include regional and national conferences, curriculum guidelines, and multimedia resources and reviews, along with special programs and resources to encourage underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in microbiology.

    The Membership Board, officially formed in 1993 from the former Membership Committee, recognizes the primary importance of providing services to ASM members. This program unit is responsible for member recognition programs and liaison with Branches, student members, and ASM's corporate partners. The Board also operates a career placement service for potential employees and employers in all fields of microbiology.

    The American Academy of Microbiology (AAM), at first a separate organization but now a component of ASM, was established in 1955 to promote programs of professional recognition and to foster the highest professional and ethical standing of microbiologists. Members are known as Fellows, of which there are now over 1,500. The Academy also sponsors professional certification programs aimed at assessing skills and knowledge necessary for employment in microbiology and immunology as well as colloquia on critical issues in microbiology. The Academy administers ASM's scientific achievement awards, the oldest of which, the Eli Lilly Award, was established in 1936 to recognize outstanding fundamental research in microbiology by younger investigators.

    ASM is organized into 25 Divisions, representing various facets of the microbiological sciences, including education. Local Branches are autonomous organizations of people interested in microbiology who reside within defined geographic areas; Branches may include among their members people who are not members of ASM. Representatives from the Divisions and Branches form the Council, ASM's governing body along with the Council Policy Committee (CPC). The CPC consists of the elected officers and representatives from ASM's program units and is charged with taking interim action on behalf of the Council. In addition to governance activities, members have many other opportunities to influence ASM's role in microbiology and make their own contributions to enhancing their science. The Society maintains an active volunteer recruitment program and a database of volunteer information that is submitted to committee and board chairs. An International Coordinating Committee was established in 1993 to further ensure that ASM addresses the needs of its international constituency. A Communications Committee disseminates news about the science and the Society to the public and to ASM members.

    A permanent headquarters for the Society was first established in Detroit, Mich., and an Executive Secretary, Raymond Sarber, was hired. In 1968 the headquarters was moved to Washington, D.C., and the first executive director, Asger Langlykke, was hired. As the Society has grown, so has its support staff and space function needs, and the Society expects to occupy its third Washington headquarters building in the latter half of 1999.

    Although founded in the 19th century, ASM has consistently strived to look forward rather than to dwell on past achievements. In 1995, the Society established a presence on the Internet and has continually refined and enhanced its electronic presence and provided additional benefits for members. One of its major communications activities centers on the Microbial Literacy Collaborative, which is developing a telecourse for undergraduates, conducting community outreach activities, and supporting a public television series, Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth, to air in four parts in the fall of 1999 and to be distributed in Europe as well.

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