Who is Responsible for this Probiotics Thing?

How do medical treatments develop, anyway? Who gets it started? How does an idea grow into a reality? Like many other great advancements in our world, medical breakthroughs begin with a teeny idea…one thought…an observation or wondering. The spark of an idea begins in the mind of a creative individual. As the ideas are tested and built upon by others, the small idea grows into a viable hypothesis.

Probiotics use good bacteria to solve medical issues.

As scientists’ knowledge of bacteria has grown, we’ve moved closer and closer to being able to use probiotics to improve specific medical conditions.

Probiotics follow that pattern. A brief study of some of the primary researchers and proponents of this developing medical phenomemon gives us an inkling of its creative progression and the way great things blossom in the minds of men and women.

First probiotics users and promoters
Cooks and scholars

We don’t have records verifying how and why people first began using bacteria-based substances to improve health. But we know enough to support a good guess. Think back many hundreds of years to a time when it was not possible to chill food in warmer climates. What happened to their food? (You think your own refrigerator is a science experiment!) The food became moldy and fermented. A few resourceful people explored this further and discovered good-tasting things like cheeses and wines.

After many eons of research and scientific advancement, we realize these things happen due to the growth of bacteria, but back then they only knew it happened and they could still eat it. Fermentation became a way to preserve food.

Someone in the Greek and Roman empires must have noticed that those who ate fermented foods were especially healthy. They no doubt attempted to produce fermented foods on purpose to test this observation. It’s not far from that thought to the thought that they could prescribe fermented foods to treat illnesses, a service for which someone probably got paid in olives and toga yard goods if not in gold. Suddenly, at some point, this common substance became a product. We don’t know exactly who these great thinkers and experimenters were, but they could be considered the first fathers (or mothers) of probiotics.

Elie Metchnikoff
Russian scientist, Deputy Director, Pasteur Institute, Paris, France

Jump ahead a few centuries to a more modern medical era. Nobel Laureate Elie Metchnikoff is commonly thought of as the official father of probiotics. He was the first to officially suggest it might be possible to replace “bad” microbes that cause health problems with “good” microbes. His idea involved the potential connection between microbes and the ravages of old age.

In the early 1900s, Metchnikoff tested his hypothesis by adding sour milk to his diet, something certain long-lived Russian rural residents had done for generations. For Metchnikoff and others it worked…although they did not yet call it probiotics.

Henry Tissier
Scientist, Pediatrician, Pasteur Institute, Paris France

About the same time Metchnikoff was working with sour milk, his colleague, pediatrician Henry Tissier, isolated a bacterium in breast milk that was thought to be helpful in treating infants with diarrhea. He suggested the Bifidobacterium was displacing diarrhea-causing bacteria. You can imagine the fruitful conversations he and Dr. Metchnikoff must have had about this! It was science in the making.

Alfred Nissle
German professor, microbiologist and physician

Often, the development of a medical treatment moves forward as the result of intense need. In 1917, when shigellosis was spreading fast, Alfred Nissle identified a strain of Escherichia coli in the stool of a soldier who wasn’t sick and used it to treat sick soldiers. As probiotics’ forefathers did, he worked on the assumption that replacing bad bacteria with good would make it difficult for the bad bacteria to thrive and eventually cure the sickness.

L.F. Rettiger and H. A Chaplin, Yale University
Scientists and authors of A Treatise on the Transformation of the Intestinal Flora with Special Reference to the Implantation of Bacillus Acidophilus (Yale University Press, Connecticut, 1921)

These scientists tested Metchnikoff’s assertion that the milk-based bacteria he called “Bulgarian Bacillus” improved health. They proved that the bacteria could not survive in the human intestine. However, through a series of experiments, they were able to obtain positive results in the treatment of chronic constipation using another microbe: Lactobacillus acidophilus. This is a great example of the way people build upon one another’s research to further develop a medical hypothesis.

Werner Georg Kollath
German bacteriologist, hygienist and food scientist; the pioneer of whole foods

When research begins to coalesce information about a medical treatment into a solid, definable concept, the next step often is naming. In 1953, food scientist and “pioneer of whole foods” Werner Kollath first used the term “probiotics” to define food supplements that fight malnutrition. Several other scientists experimented with various definitions as our understanding of the workings of beneficial microorganisms grew.

Today, definitions of “probiotics” usually include the idea of “ingested microorganisms” for the purpose of improving health in some way.

Medical advancements require teamwork—and never end

Probiotics as a specific medical treatment is still developing. Studies into the provable functioning of probiotics are becoming more sophisticated, and they are helping the medical and nutrition community narrow down repeatable results, so doctors and nutritionists can more confidently prescribe specific probiotic therapies for specific ailments.

We are grateful to the fathers of probiotics for their creative thinking and their ability to take action to move this important science forward. We also thank all of those who carry on their work. This probiotic thing has promise!


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