On the historical significance of Beijerinck and his contagium vivum fluidum for modern virology

Research paper by Neeraja Sankaran

Indexed on: 13 Jul '18Published on: 12 Jul '18Published in: History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences


This paper considers the foundational role of the contagium vivum fluidum—first proposed by the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck in 1898—in the history of virology, particularly in shaping the modern virus concept, defined in the 1950s. Investigating the cause of mosaic disease of tobacco, previously shown to be an invisible and filterable entity, Beijerinck concluded that it was neither particulate like the bacteria implicated in certain infectious diseases, nor soluble like the toxins and enzymes responsible for symptoms in others. He offered a completely new explanation, proposing that the agent was a “living infectious fluid” whose reproduction was intimately linked to that of its host cell. Difficult to test at the time, the contagium vivum fluidum languished in obscurity for more than three decades. Subsequent advances in technologies prompted virus researchers of the 1930s and 1940s—the first to separate themselves from bacteriologists—to revive the idea. They found in it both the seeds for their emerging virus concept and a way to bring hitherto opposing thought styles about the nature of viruses and life together in consensus. Thus, they resurrected Beijerinck as the founding father, and contagium vivum fluidum as the core concept of their discipline.