Adolf Mayer

Academic

1843 – 1942

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Who was Adolf Mayer?

Adolf Eduard Mayer was a German agricultural chemist whose work on tobacco mosaic disease played an important role in the discovery of tobacco mosaic virus and viruses in general.

Adolf Mayer was born in 1843 in the family of a high school teacher in Oldenburg. His mother was a daughter of renowned German chemist Leopold Gmelin. From 1860 to 1862 he studied mathematics and chemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. In 1862 he enrolled at the University of Heidelberg, where in 1864 he obtained Ph.D. in chemistry, physics and mathematics with summa cum laude.

In 1879, while Mayer held the position of the director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Wageningen in the Netherlands, he was asked by Dutch farmers to study a peculiar disease affecting the tobacco plant. Mayer published a paper in 1886 on the disease which he named as "mosaic disease of tobacco" and described its symptoms in detail. He demonstrated that the disease can be transmitted by using the sap from the affected tobacco plants as the inoculum to infect healthy plants. At the time, this disease was thought to be spread by very small bacteria or toxins, yet some years later the tobacco mosaic virus was shown to be the culprit. Mayer employed optical microscopy to seek for signs of fungi or bacteria in the infected sap, yet he did not find any, since the TMV is too small to be detected in optical microscope. Mayer still concluded that the infectious agent was some sort of bacteria and erroneously claimed that he was able to obtain "clear filtrate" from the infected sap using filter paper in several repetitions. Filtration experiments with paper and finest porcelain Chamberland filters were replicated by Dmitry Ivanovsky in 1892 and Martinus Beijerinck in 1898 who showed that the infectious agent of the tobacco mosaic disease was in fact infilterable. It was Martinus Beijerinck who first coined the term of "virus" to indicate a non-bacterial nature of the tobacco mosaic disease. In 1935, the tobacco mosaic virus was the first virus to be crystallized. Regardless of the erroneous conclusion, Mayer's pioneer work on the tobacco mosaic disease served as an important step in the discovery of viruses and led to the foundation of the field of virology.

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Born
Aug 9, 1843
Oldenburg
Education
  • Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
  • Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg
Died
Dec 25, 1942
Heidelberg

Submitted
on July 23, 2013

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