Prof. M. W. Beijerinck is most famous as a soil microbiologist. If he had instead devoted his highly productive genius and energy to the study of his "contagious living fluid" it is highly probable that the science of the viruses would have been advanced 25 years beyond what it was in 1921 when he retired from active service. For a quarter of a century after his paper entitled "Ueber ein contagium vivium fluidum, als Ursache der Fleckenkrankheit des Tabaksblätter," the subject of plant viruses appeared to have reached a limit as far as research activity relating to the nature of the viruses was concerned. Beijerinck gave only a very small part of his brilliant career to the viruses, but many other important phases of agricultural and industrial science benefited by this distribution of his researches. Although Dr. Beijerinck was professionally a botanist and his first and last scientific interests were in this older field, the contributions for which he is most famous were adopted by bacteriology and soil microbiology. Commencing with studies on plant galls, his attentions were directed toward fermentation and he thus became a pioneer in microbiology, including, particularly, nutrition studies on algae, amoebae, yeasts, fungi, and bacteria. It was Beijerinck who, in 1888, isolated Bacillus radicicola, the nodule organism of leguminous plants. His studies, important to soil science, on the sulphur bacteria, azotobacter, and on denitrification came at about the same time as his work on the tobacco-mosaic virus. During all this busy period in research he was also a teacher with a highly stimulating influence on his pupils, thereby attracting numerous students of science to his desk and to his laboratories.
Martinus Willem Beijerinck was born in Amsterdam, Holland, March 16, 1851. He received the degree of "Chemical Engineer" from the Technical School of Delft in 1872 and obtained his Doctor of Science degree at Leyden in 1877. He started his teaching career as a lecturer in 1873, including botany, physiology, physics, zoology, and geology, subjects taught before he had earned his doctor’s degree. Such diversity of basic knowledge may account in part for his wide interests in later researches. As early as 1876 he lectured at the Agricultural School at Wageningen, Holland, and it was no doubt shortly after this that his interests in the tobacco-mosaic disease was fostered by Adolf Mayer who, about the same time, had come to Wageningen as Director of the Experiment Station. In 1887 Beijerinck became, at the invitation of Hugo de Vries, the microbiologist of the Netherland Yeast and Alcohol Factory at Delft. In 1893 he was made Professor of Bacteriology in the Technical School at Delft, which title was apparently changed to Professor of Microbiology in 1895. In 1897 Beijerinck founded the Microbiological Laboratory at the same institution where he performed his most important work on tobacco mosaic and labored on other problems until his retirement in 1921 at the age of 70 years. His numerous and brilliant papers were brought together on this anniversary in a collection of 5 volumes published by Gravenhage of Delft. Prof. M. W. Beijerinck died on Jan. 1, 1931 at a country home close to Gorssel in eastern Netherlands.
To download Beijerinck's classic paper, Concerning a Contagium Vivum Fluidium as a Cause of the Spot-Disease of Tobacco Leaves, click here (pdf format, 1,666K -- please prepare to wait a bit for this article to download