Jun 9

Who did invent the Petri dish? The mystery deepens…

Oh the problems of assigning credit to discoveries! Just when I thought I had pinned down the discoverer of the ‘Petri’ dish as the English scientist, Percy Frankland (.lGzi4 Quarterly 25, 98-99) I receive news of a counter claim. This comes from Dr Philip P. Mortimer of the Central Public Health Laboratory, Colindale, who wrote a fascinating article (PHLS Microbiology Digest 14,242), almost identical in style to my own, in which he gives credit for the ‘Petri’ dish to Emanuel Klein.

KIein (1844-1925) was a histologist and microbiologist who, although born in Slavonia, worked in England from I872 until his death. He made important, and largely overlooked, contributions to microbiology and also wrote an influential textbook called Microorganisms and Disease which, by 1886, had reached its third edition. As Dr Mortimer points out, Klein (on p. 43 of the book), provides a line drawing of his dish and details its use to isolate bacteria. His description of a ‘Petri’ dish appeared in 1885, the same year as Frankland’s. Both descriptions predate Petri’s paper by at least a year. Did Klein then beat Frankland to the ‘Petri’ dish?

The preface to Kleins book is dated November 1885, so it would seem that he was using his dish in the year before the appearance of the third edition of his book. This would give him priority on the invention over Frankland, whose paper appeared in the Proceeding so f the Royal Society dated June 1886. However, we do not know how long Frankland, or Klein (or, for that matter, Petri), were using their dishes before they published. In the absence of their notebooks it is therefore impossible to assign priority accurately. In the fourth edition of his book, published in 1889, Klein refers disparagingly to the fact that Petri’s name is associated with the famous dish, claiming that he had used his identical dish some years before Petri’s paper appeared. Yet, as far as I can tell, Klein fails to mention his dish in any of his papers published prior to 1886. However, in one that appeared in the Practitioner of 1887 (i.e. in the same year as Petri’s paper appeared) Klein describes how he used his dish to isolate air-borne micro-organisms. This paper is clearly influenced by Frankland’s earlier Royal Society contribution on the same subject.

It is also worth noting that Klein, unlike Frankland, suggested that his dishes be covered with a large glass bell jar, thereby making his approach somewhat cumbersome. Petri also used a bell jar in the same way and his description of this dish is almost identical to that given by Klein. The fact that Klein was annoyed when Petri received the recognition for what he considered to be his dish, suggests that Petri, either directly or indirectly, was not the source of his inspiration.

Who then invented the ‘Petri’ dish? As I stated above, we do not know how long the individual contenders used their dishes before they announced their inventions; as a result, we must rely upon publication dates. At the moment (there may yet be other contenders!), the race is clearly between Frankland and Klein. Since i t is such a close run thing, it would be fair to talk about Frankiand-Klein (or FK) dishes. However, if on pain of death I had to choose between the two competing claims I would give the result to Frankland, simply because he published details of his invention in a refereed scientific journal, while Klein’s description appeared in a book. When assigning authority for a discovery or invention, the former usually has priority over the latter. My result then – Frankland by a nose, with Klein second and Petri nowhere in the frame!

Milton Wainwright

From “Microbiology Today” – Society of General Microbiology – Volume 26 February 1999

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