The Cycle of Life:
An History of Experimental Ecology

Sterling Memorial
Kline Sciences
Medical Historical
Exhibit Map

Lloyd Ackert, From the Thermodynamics of Life to Ecological Microbiology: Sergei Vinogradskii and the Cycle of Life: 1850-1950 (Ph.D. Thesis, The Johns Hopkins University, 2004)


“Everything that the plants take from the air they give to animals,
the animals return it to the air; this is the eternal circle
in which life revolves but where matter only changes place.”
Jean Baptiste Dumas, 1842

In 1949, at the age of 93, Sergei Nikolaevich Vinogradskii made one final effort to establish his legacy in the history of science. He concluded his scientific career by synthesizing his life’s work in a nine hundred-page compendium entitled (in French) Soil Microbiology: Problems and Methods, Fifty Years of Investigations. That this work appeared just after World War II during a time of few resources and was rapidly translated into Polish and Russian, demonstrates Vinogradskii reputation in the international scientific community. The identity of those people and organizations that facilitated the publication of these volumes—the Nobel Prize laureate Selman Waksman in the United States; Member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences A. A. Imshenetskii in the Soviet Union; and the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France—reflects the breadth of Vinogradskii’s network.

Vinogradskii entitled his book Soil Microbiology, but, revealingly, he structured it as a history of his contributions to ecology. Organizing it thematically, according to research subject, he consistently directed his readers to the ecological significance of his work. As a final statement of this, he ended his tome with an essay on “The Principles of Ecological Microbiology, A Synthesis.” Writing in 1945, Vinogradskii traced “the remote origin of this new branch of the grand microbiological science” to Louis Pasteur’s concept of “the role of the ‘infiniment petits’ in nature.” Vinogradskii understood what historians of science have only begun to understand—that ecology owes a substantial debt to microbiology.

An analysis of Vinogradskii’s original publications reveals his gradual transformation from a plant physiologist to an ecological microbiologist. At the surface, his story conforms to the history of ecology, which is usually portrayed as emerging from the synthesis of Humboldtian phytogeography with Darwinian evolutionary theory by botanists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As I examine Vinogradskii’s career in further detail, however, his plant physiology becomes microbiology, and phytogeography becomes the thermodynamics of life. Through these distinctions, a new history of ecology emerges—one that accentuates the role not of natural historians, Darwinists, and plant communities; but rather of experimentalists (who often fused their laboratory investigations with field observations), holists, and soil microbes. I describe how Vinogradskii’s training and research combined a group of scientists and scientific disciplines usually neglected by historians of ecology. These microbiologists, plant physiologists, soil scientists, and geobotanists shared an interest in pursuing experimental investigations of energy, matter, and life.

Completely absent from Vinogradskii’s Soil Microbiology is any mention of the concept of the cycle of life—the scientific world view within which he conducted his research. It is primarily through exploring his devotion to this concept that we encounter a new dimension in the history of ecology. Through this concept, he combined the microbiology of Louis Pasteur, the bacterial taxonomy of Ferdinand Cohn, and the holistic thermodynamics of Russian plant physiology as taught by his mentor, Andrei Famintsyn.

In this thesis, I examine how Vinogradskii developed the cycle of life concept through a series of stages—plant physiology, microbiology, soil science—into ecological microbiology in the 1920s. Along the way, Vinogradskii transferred his cycle of life tradition to a diverse set of scientific schools. I present case studies that indicate how numerous microbiologists, soil scientists, forestry specialists, and medical bacteriologists integrated his methods into their own research programs.

Vinogradskii intended his Soil Microbiology to be autobiographical. As an historical source, however, it provides a clearer window on his activities and interests in the mid-twentieth century than on the previous decades. He deserves a new biography, not only because he made significant contributions to the sciences of plant physiology, microbiology, soil science, and ecology, but because his work unites these fields in a novel way. In this exercise in scientific biography, I agree with Thomas Hankins that biographies can provide a window onto the broader understanding of science in its social and cultural context. I treat Vinogradskii’s life as the intersection of this historical context and his “scientific, philosophical, social and political ideas.” My focus here is on Vinogradskii’s scientific research and how it changed and stayed the same over his career. Following the model provided by Frederick Holmes and other scientific biographers, I use Vinogradskii’s ‘life and times’ to reconstruct significant episodes of his laboratory practices and the role of theory in their development.

The context for much of Vinogradskii’s story is Russian. His formative years as a scientist occurred during the period when Russia was developing its own native scientific journals, institutions, and schools. During the 1880s, the Russian government expanded its support for science and employed increasing numbers of Russian scientists in the place of foreign, often Western European scientists. This is not to say that the strong link between Russian and Western science and medicine was weakened—it may be that during this process it was indeed strengthened. When the government founded new institutes, it looked first to Western European models—for example, Prince Oldenburgskii modeled his Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine (where Vinogradskii worked from 1891-1912) on the Pasteur Institute in Paris. In addition, scientific journals during this period were often published in both Russian and German or French. While I will not treat these issues in great detail, Vinogradskii’s story reflects the social and institutional changes Russian science experienced at the turn of the century.

As a man of the ‘eighties,’ Vinogradskii represents a generation that bridged two periods of vigorous expansion in Russian science: the second half of the nineteenth century (the generation of the “men of the sixties”) and the early Soviet period. Vinogradskii lived through six decades of dramatic change in Russian and Western European history, and the career choices he made reflected the social and political forces that shaped Russian culture.

Vinogradskii’s development as a scientist also reflected the shifting relationship in the history of science between natural history and laboratory research. His career exemplifies how scientists could balance their commitments to romantic ideals associated with natural history with the new techniques and escalating status of laboratory-based investigations. In the first half of the nineteenth century, efforts to categorize nature had slowly given way to increasingly dynamic natural historical systems including Humboldt’s phytogeography, Lyell’s historical geology, and Darwin’s theory of evolution. The second half of the century was characterized by an increased reliance on the laboratory, which—with its focus on the chemical and physical investigation of organic and inorganic bodies, and on the experimental ideal of knowledge—challenged the validity of the natural historical approach.

The laboratory revolution was neither a paradigm shift nor a changing of the guard. It was, rather, a period of slow transition marked by the blending of traditions. Vinogradskii’s negotiation of these changes was reflected in his choices among disciplines, methodologies, and scientific questions. I explore his synthesis of his commitment to a theoretical vision rooted in natural history with his penchant for experiment. I describe how he learned to express the concept of the cycle of life in the language of the laboratory—in the language of microscopic observations, chemical analyses, and gel plates. Here we discover how he introduced the analytic, dissecting, and observing power of the laboratory into the wild of nature.

The history of soil science has been largely neglected by historians of science. Through Vinogradskii’s story, I begin to explore the growth of this science at the turn of the century when it was first becoming an established discipline. Introducing the concept of autotrophism and the elective culture method into soil science, Vinogradskii brought that science into contact with microbiology. As these disciplines expanded and divided into subfields in the twentieth century, his contributions facilitated their transformation into ecological sciences.

Through Vinogradskii’s story I tell a history of microbiology that takes account of soil science and ecology. Here also is a history of soil science told from the perspective of an ecologist and microbiologist. Finally, I present a history of ecology as it developed in microbiology and soil science. Sergei Vinogradskii’s biography unites these histories in a unique way—through the concept of the cycle of life.

Case 1
Case 2
Case 3
Case 4
Case 5
Case 6
Case 7
Case 8
Lloyd Ackert
Whitney Humanities Center
Yale University
53 Wall Street
P.O. Box 208298
New Haven, CT 06520-8298
Office: (203).432.3112
The library is located in the
Yale University School of Medicine Building
333 Cedar Street
New Haven, CT
Map, Directions