Views And Reviews

The media man

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 20 August 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:545
  1. B Dixon

    Few bacteriologists today will know the name of W H (Bill) Pierce. Yet, as Max Sussman of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne pointed out recently, they are professionally indebted to Pierce every day of their working lives. For it was he who played the key role in developing culture media that are now routinely used in every bacteriology laboratory throughout the world.

    The story has its roots in the German chemist Justus von Liebig's development of meat extract as a human nutritional supplement over a century and a half ago. Originally von Liebig's extract was made at the Royal Pharmacy in Munich; then in 1865 control was transferred to London with the formation of Liebig's Extract of Meat Company (giving an acronym that is certainly familiar to bacteriologists today in the name of the nutrient medium LAB-LEMCO). It was with the advent of the microbe hunters towards the end of the last century that Liebig's extract began to be used as a medium for growing bacteria in the laboratory. Then, in 1899, LEMCO launched a superior version for human consumption. They called it Oxo.

    Oxo Ltd came into existence in 1914, and it established a new medical division, Oxoid Ltd, based in Oxford, to make culture media and cattle gland extracts for medical purposes. A few years later, at around the time Bill Pierce joined the company, Oxoid also introduced a solubilised dried beef, as an easily digestible product for convalescent patients. Only slightly modified, it continues to be marketed today as bacteriological peptone.

    A further congruence between human and microbial nourishment came during the second world war, when Oxoid was making field rations for the armed forces. These had to be tested for bacteriological contamination before being released to the troops, which in turn generated an unprecedented need for large volumes of culture media. It was mainly Bill Pierce's achievement to lead the development of ready mixed media for this purpose, replacing the much more laborious preparation of batches of media from individual in house ingredients. Soon the company was using these premixed, dehydrated media to monitor the quality of its military rations.

    What happened next was not planned. Bacteriologists elsewhere began to hear about the new media, asked for samples, and received them thanks to Pierce's generosity. At the same time, sales of cattle gland extracts were declining. So the company decided to close that department and switch production to the new dehydrated media, for which demand was increasing. These products have been the mainstay of Oxoid (now Unipath Ltd) ever since.

    Thus a man who began life as a bookie's runner, and who received no formal training whatever, had a massive impact on the development of bacteriology. Even more extraordinary is the fact that Pierce, despite a disabled left arm as a result of poliomyelitis in his youth, was an outstanding practical worker at the laboratory bench. Not only have his media survived him, so too have many of the techniques which he devised.

    And now, thanks to the directors of Unipath, we have the annual W H Pierce Memorial Prize - a £1750 cheque and a scroll - for young bacteriologists in Britain. Max Sussman's comments come from his introduction to a booklet, published by the Society for Applied Bacteriology, carrying reviews of their work by the first eight prizewinners. It is a delight, with a quality of writing reflecting that of Pierce himself and a mixture of clever ideas and clever techniques that is equally appropriate. If this is a reflection of science in Britain today, things cannot be that bad.

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