Powel Kazanjian, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Internal Medicine; Professor and Chief, Infectious Diseases, Medical School; Professor of Epidemiology, School of Public Health; Professor of History, College of Literature, and the Arts; University of Michigan

Frederick Novy: Beginnings of Bacteriology in American Medicine: 1889-1933

Frederick Novy (1864-1957) was a leader among a new breed of full-time bacteriologists at American medical schools in the 1890s. I examine Novy’s research and educational activities at the University of Michigan from 1889-1933. For sources, I use Novy’s published articles, archived letters, laboratory notebooks and lecture notes.

                Novy was unusual for his time because his training, research program and his educational activities focused on fundamental science and not practical application. Novy first received a doctorate in chemistry then after becoming a physician translated his scientific training to discover objective truths about microbial biology. He investigated the chemical basis of metabolism and respiration to determine how microbes survive in nature. He also developed innovative dynamic culture techniques to grow protozoa and define the changing forms and their behavior as they matured over time. In his bacteriology course, the first full-semester one offered in America, he sought to instill what he called “a spirit of science in medicine”—critical thinking combined with a duty to search for objective truths above practical application.

                The story of a first generation American bacteriologist like Novy who was devoted to what his peers called the “pure science” ideal has meanings for medicine, bacteriology and American society. His colleagues and students viewed his devotion to producing new knowledge as adding legitimacy to a medical profession in need of certainty and his medical instruction as establishing a foundation for the reforms in American medical education and establishment of “basic science” departments that would follow. His work also helped to define bacteriology as a distinct discipline in America, as he was a founding member of the American Society of Bacteriology in 1899. The representation of Novy’s science in American culture can be viewed through the novel Arrowsmith. In the novel, Sinclair Lewis used an account of Novy’s activities provided by his student Paul de Kruif to construct and popularize a heroic image of a truth-seeking medical researcher that had widespread and lasting appeal in American society.