Bentley Historical Lib./Univ. Michigan
Frederick Novy, pictured in 1938, championed the early study of microorganisms.
The ‘hero narrative’ of science that honours stars such as Isaac Newton and Marie Curie often obscures the multitudes who lay the foundations — that centuries-old chain of curious minds. In this biography, physician and historian Powel Kazanjian pulls one from that multitude into the light: microbiology pioneer Frederick Novy.
Kazanjian’s detailed and authoritative account reveals how Novy (1864–1957) did fundamental work that shaped the field’s development, and introduced basic research into medical training. Novy grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Like many of his US contemporaries in the transitional, industrializing latter half of the nineteenth century, he explored science in school. As a youth, he conducted chemical reactions under the back steps of his home, with inevitably explosive results, and saved US$60 from a job in the Chicago Public Library to buy a microscope and investigate life invisible to the naked eye.
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he trained as a chemist before moving to medical school, but never practised as a physician, instead taking up a post under eminent epidemiologist Victor Vaughan. The two travelled to Europe to study with monarchs of the microbe Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur, learning the methods of bacteriology and germ theory.
Back in Ann Arbor, Vaughan and Novy established…