University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Bacteriology Designated as a Milestones in Microbiology Site




L-R - Michele Swanson, Host of This Week in Microbiology (TWiM) Milestones podcast, Tim Donohue, ASM President, Katrina Forest (holding Milestones plaque), UW-Bacteriology Professor,

Rick Gourse, UW-Bacteriology Chair, Tom Brock, UW-Bacteriology Emeritus Professor


Click Here to Access This Week in Microbiology (TWiM) Podcast Held in Association with the Milestones in Microbiology Designation



The American Society for Microbiology

Announces its Designation of the

University of Wisconsin–Madison,

Department of Bacteriology

as a Milestones in Microbiology site 


The ASM Milestones in Microbiology program recognizes institutions and the scientists who worked there

that have made significant contributions toward advancing the science of microbiology. 


Milestones Recognition

The Milestones designation of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Bacteriology is made in recognition of the Department’s consistent history of outstanding cutting-edge research over the past 100 years, and the continuing benefits to fundamental and applied sciences, to industry, to government and to society as a whole from the research performed in the Department.




Milestones Site Dedication Ceremony

A ceremony unveiling the plaque that will mark the site as a Milestone in Microbiology was held on Saturday, August 30, 2014, in a ceremony held during the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Bacteriology’s Centennial Celebration.  ASM President Timothy Donohue presented the plaque on behalf of ASM.


The Milestones Plaque:

xUW APPROVED plaque 2014-REDUCED SIZE-9-5-14



This Week in Microbiology (TWiM) Podcast 

Michele Swanson, University of Michigan Ann Arbor and co-host of This Week in Microbiology (TWiM), hosted an on-site TWiM podcast featuring UW-Bacteriology panelists Tom Brock, Tim Donohue, Katrina Forest and Rick Gourse, who discussed the history of UW-Bacteriology as well as current research in the Department and in the associated Great Lakes Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, with an emphasis on the diversity of microbiological studies included in the Department.  Click Here to Access TWiM Podcast  



Historical Background and Perspective


The Department of Bacteriology at UW-Madison (UW-Bacteriology) has a rich history. Its current and past research covers the breadth of microbiology, and has resulted in many important discoveries during the past 100 years.  

UW-Bacteriology was officially formed in 1914, though even before then (beginning in the late 1800’s), considerable activity in bacteriological studies occurred at UW-Madison. Instruction in bacteriology has been continuous since 1885, probably representing a longer period than any other American university. Over the years, the Department has expanded to study diverse facets of microbiology, while proudly retaining the name “Department of Bacteriology.”

UW-Bacteriology was an early leader in the development of agricultural and environmental bacteriology, fields which later formed the basis for the studies of microbial physiology and genetics. The Department is also a leader in fundamental and applied disciplines of microbiology. Its traditions of association with industry and the development of important areas of biotechnology have been present from the outset and continue to this day.

Early Research and Development of Courses of Instruction:

In the late 1800’s, several innovators were integrally involved in the development of courses and early research programs at UW-Madison. In 1881, William Trelease, then of the Department of Biology, introduced the discussion of bacteria into his course in Botany. The work of Pasteur, Tyndall, Koch, and Cohn was presented. In 1877-78, the first science laboratories at the University of Wisconsin were developed by Edward Birge. He studied in what is now Birge Hall which houses the Department of Botany. Later, while serving as President of UW-Madison, Birge developed the first formal courses in bacteriology. His first student to enter the field of bacteriology was Harry Luman Russell, who later became the Dean of the Wisconsin College of Agriculture.

Animal Health:

Initial research in the Department was devoted to animal health, including the detection and treatment of Johne’s disease in cattle, the relation between avian, porcine, and bovine tuberculosis, and infectious diseases of foxes and other fur-bearing animals. Wisconsin was the first of the dairy states to eradicate bovine tuberculosis from its herds.

Dairy Studies and Commercial Canning:

The study of dairying, including pasteurization of milk, starter cultures, and cheese manufacture, was introduced on the campus in the late 1800s as it became apparent that Wisconsin was to be a center of the dairy industry. Extensive research was carried out on techniques needed for commercial canning, and in 1898, benefitting from the knowledge gained through Departmental research, two factories in Wisconsin produced the largest pea pack in the world. In 1889, Harry Russell resolved a canning spoilage problem, and during World War II, the Department developed a protocol for sterilization in glass bottles, metal being reserved for the war effort.


Plant Pathology:

Microbiological studies in plant pathology focusing on disease resistance to cereal seedling blight, fire blight, crown gall, and virus diseases of potato and tobacco were also undertaken in the early years. Due to the need for this kind of expertise, the early instructors in the Department of Bacteriology were often botanists in training.

Soil Bacteriology:

The importance of soil bacteriology was developed under the direction of Conrad Hoffman and later under the direction of Edwin B. Fred, who joined the staff of the College of Agriculture in 1913. Researchers in bacteriology prepared and distributed cultures for inoculation of legumes, and this research area was furthered by Fred. Work on nitrogen fixation continued in Bacteriology throughout the 20th Century, not only with Fred, but also with Ira Baldwin, Elizabeth McCoy, Winston Brill, and Gary Roberts, as well as in Biochemistry with Robert Burris and Paul Ludden.


Throughout its history, UW-Bacteriology has maintained strong working relationships with Wisconsin industry, and cooperation between the Department and industries such as the large breweries of Milwaukee and smaller craft breweries scattered throughout the state has been the norm. Working first at Indiana University and later at UW-Madison, Thomas Brock made fundamental contributions to the development of the biotechnology industry through his work with thermophiles and the discovery of Taq polymerase.

Prokaryotic Molecular Genetics and Molecular Biology:

In the last 25 years of the 20th Century, the Department began to focus on prokaryotic molecular genetics and molecular biology, with faculty members, including Carol Gross, contributing greatly to the development of the field. The Department continues to focus on fundamental mechanisms in prokaryotic biology to this day, but as it enters the 21st Century, the advent of microbial genomics, as well as the explosion of DNA sequence information and high throughput data analysis, has ushered the Department into yet another new research arena. Identification of new antibiotics and their targets, as well as study of the animal microbiome and its host interactions continue to progress.      

Training Future Scientific Leaders:

Throughout its 100-year history, the Department has successfully trained thousands of students for undergraduate and graduate degrees, preparing them to be scientific leaders in the field.  Thomas Brock’s “Biology of Microorganisms” became a classic international teaching text. The appointment of a faculty member principally to teach is rare in large research universities, and in this role, Kenneth Todar and John Lindquist nationally excelled.


Relationship with American Society for Microbiology:

UW-Bacteriology has had a close relationship with the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) throughout its history. Several UW Scientists have served as ASM Presidents to date:

  • Harry Luman Russell (1908)
  • Edwin George Hastings (1923)
  • Edwin Broun Fred (1932)
  • Paul Franklin Clark (1938)
  • Ira Lawrence Baldwin (1944)
  • Perry William Wilson (1957)
  • William Bowen Sarles (1967)
  • Edwin Michael Foster (1970)
  • Timothy Donohue (2015)

Nobel Prize Recognition in Physiology or Medicine

Scientists in disciplines throughout the University of Wisconsin-Madison have contributed to important discoveries, and several have earned Nobel Prize recognition for their work. These include:

  • Joshua Lederberg – Awarded Nobel Prize in 1958 for his “discoveries concerning genetic recombination and the organization of the genetic material of bacteria”

  • Howard Temin – Awarded Nobel Prize in 1975 for “discoveries concerning the interaction between tumor viruses and the genetic material of the cell”

  • Har Gobind Khorana – Awarded Nobel Prize in 1967 for “interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis”


Listed below is a sampling of select landmark achievements at UW-Bacteriology. For more information on the history of the UW Department of Bacteriology and its accomplishments, visit:


Edward Birge in the Department of Botany develops the first science laboratories at the University of Wisconsin. His class subject matter includes training in fundamentals in microbiology.


William Trelease (Botany) teaches Bacteriology at UW. This is thought to be the first bacteriology course taught at any American university.


One of Edward Birge’s first students, Harry Luman Russell, becomes Dean of the College of Agriculture, later named the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), which continues today and hosts departments in life sciences at UW-Madison.


In 1894, Harry Russell demonstrates the presence of bovine tuberculosis in cattle herds in Wisconsin.  In 1895, he is instrumental in beginning the development of the Department of Bacteriology, the first of its kind in any American university.


Edwin G. Hastings is hired and he develops the concept of cheese starter cultures and ripening organisms. His efforts lead to vast improvements in the Wisconsin dairy industry.


Edwin B. Fred is hired in Bacteriology to study nitrogen fixation. In 1934, Fred becomes Dean of the Graduate School, and in 1943, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. In 1945, he becomes president of the University of Wisconsin, a position he holds until 1958.


The Department of Agricultural Bacteriology is founded. In 1947, the name is changed to Bacteriology.


Bacteriology faculty produce nitrogen-fixing inocula for Wisconsin farmers, helping increase yields of leguminous crops such as peas, soybeans and alfalfa.


Ira L. Baldwin is hired in Bacteriology and teaches the first course in bacterial physiology.  Baldwin later becomes chair of the department (1941-44), dean of the Graduate School (1944-45), dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (1945-48), and Vice President of UW Academic Affairs (1949-66).


Edwin Fred, Ira Baldwin and Elizabeth McCoy publish the definitive text on nitrogen fixation, “Root Nodule Bacteria and Leguminous Plants.”


Ira Baldwin serves as founding scientific director of the U.S. Army facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, overseeing the building of the facility and the recruitment of scores of scientists to conduct fundamental research on the potential of, and defenses against, biological warfare.

1940s – 50s

The discovery by Kenneth Raper and Mary Hunt (USDA, Peoria) of the high penicillin yielding strain Penicillium chrysogenum launches a new era of high level practical antibiotic production. UW-Bacteriology works with the USDA scientists, and major developments such as super high yielding mutant strains (Backus and Stauffer) and submerged fermentation techniques (Brown Peterson and Johnson) follow. Further contributions continue to flow from the laboratories of Raper (who came to UW in 1953), Robert Burris, David Perlman, Charles Siu and Jerry Ensign through the rest of the century.


Bibhuti DasGupta (Food Research Institute) and Hiroshi Sugiyama (Food Research Institute and Bacteriology) purify and characterize botulinum neurotoxin involved in the disease botulism.


The Department begins to focus on prokaryotic molecular genetics and molecular biology, resulting in diverse fundamental discoveries.


Winston Brill and Vinod Shah identify the metal cluster at the active site of nitrogenase. This discovery leads to enhanced understanding of nitrogen fixation and benefits agriculture.


Fun Sun Chu purifies and characterizes antibodies against a range of mycotoxins, contributing substantially to the detection of and control of mycotoxin contamination worldwide.


Botulinum toxin produced by Edward J. Schantz (Food Research Institute) and Eric A. Johnson (Food Research Institute, Bacteriology) is used in the first primate and human studies for the development of the therapeutic use of the toxin. In 1987, the technology is acquired by Allergan and named Botox®, and is now a multi-billion dollar drug.


Marsha Betley (Food Research Institute, Bacteriology) provides the first genetic characterization of staphylococcal enterotoxin genes, which contributes to the understanding of staphylococcal food poisoning.


T. Kent Kirk (U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, Bacteriology) is elected to the National Academy of Sciences for elucidation of the microbial degradation of lignin, important for biological pulping of wood, the understanding of the basis of wood rotting and the bioconversion of lignin wastes into useful products.


Bacteriology sees an impressive growth in the number of undergraduate majors as students are drawn to microbiology as a career. It is estimated that since its inception, the UW Department of Bacteriology has trained over 100,000 undergraduate and graduate students.


A gift from the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin estate establishes the Wisconsin Idea Endowment, which helps fund community-service learning programs for students, and supports research projects focused on societal issues.


As part of the Wisconsin BioStar Initiative, the Microbial Sciences Building is completed, and faculty and staff of the Food Research Institute, Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology, and Bacteriology move into the new building.


The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) is established with Timothy Donohue (Bacteriology) as the Director. GLBRC is developing technologies for the conversion of renewable terrestrial biomass for the production of fuels, fine chemicals, and other industrial products.






Any questions? Contact the ASM Archivist at