Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 49, Issue 1, pp 3–36 | Cite as

The Bacterial Cell Wall in the Antibiotic Era: An Ontology in Transit Between Morphology and Metabolism, 1940s–1960s

  • María Jesús Santesmases


This essay details a historical crossroad in biochemistry and microbiology in which penicillin was a co-agent. I narrate the trajectory of the bacterial cell wall as the precise target for antibiotic action. As a strategic object of research, the bacterial cell wall remained at the core of experimental practices, scientific narratives and research funding appeals throughout the antibiotic era. The research laboratory was dedicated to the search for new antibiotics while remaining the site at which the mode of action of this new substance was investigated. This combination of circumstances made the bacterial wall an ontology in transit. As invisible as the bacterial wall was for clinical purposes, in the biological laboratory, cellular meaning in regard to the action of penicillin made the bacterial wall visible within both microbiology and biochemistry. As a border to be crossed, some components of the bacterial cell wall and the biochemical destruction produced by penicillin became known during the 1950s and 1960s. The cell wall was constructed piece by piece in a transatlantic circulation of methods, names, and images of the shape of the wall itself. From 1955 onwards, microbiologists and biochemists mobilized new names and associated conceptual meanings. The composition of this thin and rigid layer would account for its shape, growth and destruction. This paper presents a history of biochemical morphology: a chemistry of shape – the shape of bacteria, as provided by its wall – that accounted for biology, for life itself. While penicillin was being established as an industrially-manufactured object, it remained a scientific tool within the research laboratory, contributing to the circulation of further scientific objects.


Biochemistry Microbiology Penicillin Antibiotic screening Spheroplasts History 


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto de FilosofíaCCHS, Consejo Superior de Investigaciobnes CientíficasMadridSpain

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