TUDelft Logo2 TUDelft Logo2 TUDelft Logo2 TUDelft Logo2 TUDelft Logo2 TUDelft Logo2




Martinus Willem Beijerinck, born 16 March 1851 in Amsterdam, studied at the Technical School of Delft, where he was awarded the degree of Chemical Engineer in 1872. He obtained his Doctor of Science degree from the University of Leiden in 1877. At the time, Delft, then a Polytechnic, did not have the right to confer doctorates, so Leiden did this for them. His thesis was called “Bijdrage tot de morphologie de plantegallen” and his promotor was Willem Frederik Reinier Suringar.

In 1884 all Beijrincks scientific work was rewarded, at very young age he became member of “Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen” (KNAW; The Dutch Royal Academy of Science) He became a teacher in microbiology at the Agricultural School in Wageningen (now Wageningen University). Later M.W. Beijerinck was appointed Professor of Microbiology at the Delft Polytechnic in 1895, having previously been the head of the first industrial microbiology laboratory in the Netherlands, at the Delft Yeast and Spirit Factory. In 1897, his new laboratory was opened.
Beijerinck seemed to be a socially eccentric figure. It is said that he was verbally abusive to students, never married, and had few professional collaborations. His low popularity with his students periodically seemed to depressed him, as he very much loved spreading his enthusiasm for biology in the classroom.


During his career, Beijerinck and his group were the first to isolate many bacteria and yeasts, and Beijerinck was also the first to recognise that tobacco mosaic disease was due to a "living" organism. Therefore he used in 1898 filtration experiments to show tobacco mosaic disease is caused by an agent smaller than a bacterium. He named that new pathogen virus. (Dimitri Ivanovski discovered viruses in 1892, but failed to report his findings.) He is considered the founder of virology.

Nitrogen fixation is the process by which diatomic nitrogen gas is converted to ammonium ions and become available for plants. Beijerinck discovered that it were bacteria who performed the fixation of nitrogen: it were symbiotic N2-fixing bacteria.

Beijerinck discovered the phenomenon of bacterial sulfate reduction, a form of anaerobic respiration. He learned bacteria could use sulfate as a terminal electron acceptor, instead of oxygen. This discovery has had an important impact on our current understanding of biogeochemical cycles. Spirillum desulfuricans, the first known sulfate-reducing bacterium, was isolated and described by Beijerinck.

Finally, it was Beijerinck who first devised the principles of the enrichment (or elective) culture, a fundamental technique used for studying microbes from the environment which is still in use today.