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Theory that certain diseases are caused by invasion of the body by microorganisms. Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and Robert Koch are given much of the credit for its acceptance in the later 19th century. Pasteur showed that organisms in the air cause fermentation and spoil food; Lister was first to use an antiseptic to exclude germs in the air to prevent infection; and Koch first linked a specific organism with a disease (anthrax). The full implications of germ theory for medical practice were not immediately apparent after it was proven; surgeons operated without masks or head coverings as late as the 1890s.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on germ theory, visit Britannica.com.