Probing The Microbes

CT Microbiologist Influenced Mark Twain

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Mark Twain on the left and Microbiologist H.W. Conn on the right.
Photo:Nancy Eve Cohen
Nancy Eve Cohen
Prof. Kenneth Noll (L) & retired UConn Dramatic Arts Prof. Jerry Krasser (R) read "3000 Years Among The Microbes".
Photo:Nancy Eve Cohen
Students check out the exhibit "Mark Twain and the Science of Dr. Conn".
Photo:Nancy Eve Cohen
Probing The Microbes
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Probing The Microbes

A University of Connecticut microbiologist has discovered a connection linking a 19th century scientist to the writings of Mark Twain. WNPR’s Nancy Cohen reports on an exhibit celebrating “Mark Twain and the Science of Dr. Conn”.

Herbert W. Conn studied dairy microbiology in the late 1800s and pushed for the pasteurization of milk to make it safer. Last year UConn microbiologist Kenneth Noll was sitting in his office researching an unpublished book by Mark Twain, called “3000 Years Among the Microbes”, when he stumbled upon the name H.W. Conn in the story.

“A light bulb went on in my head and I ran down the hall and there was a photograph hanging on the wall of H.W. Conn and I ran back and sure enough it was the same person.”

Conn founded the Bacteriology Department in 1902 at the Connecticut Agricultural College, which later became UConn. Today his field is known as ‘microbiology’. Microbes are neither plants nor animals. But they’re living organisms; very tiny, but essential to life.

“Microbes really do create the world for us. Very few of them actually harm us and that theme was picked up Mark Twain in his story.”

The book’s main character was turned into a cholera microbe and inhabited the body of an old tramp. Twain used the relationship between the different microbes as a metaphor for class division among people. At an opening for the exhibit Jerry Krasser, a retired UConn Dramatic Arts Professor, gave a reading from the book about the upper class “sooflasky” microbes and the lower class microbes Twain called “swinks”.

"I was of the set apart, the chosen, the grand razzle dazzle and all that had something to look down upon. To be indifferent about. I was a sooflasky. Oh! Yes I was! And way down below me was the insignificant swink."

The exhibit, put together by Noll and his Freshman Honors class can be seen at the UConn library until December 19th.

For WNPR, I’m Nancy Cohen.