Slightly ovoid in shape and somewhat blurred at the edges, the black splotches were scattered across a mottled gray background, looking much like a postmodern painting. At a meeting of the Medical Society of Berlin in 1938, Helmut Ruska, a German physician and biologist, was presenting the first images ever seen of virus particles. The splotches were members of the poxvirus family, specifically ectromelia, visualized directly in the lymph fluids of infected mice.
Thanks to the invention of the electron microscope, then known as the Übermikroscop, scientists could finally observe—actually see—what was already known to exist: the minuscule and mysterious world of viruses. Ruska’s brother, Ernst, a physicist, had built the first prototype of the instrument while completing his Ph.D., but Helmut saw the device’s potential application to the field of biology. Helmut and his colleagues went on to gather nearly 2,000 black-and-white images by the end of 1939. Their collection included a variety of pathogens known to infect humans and plants, including the variola virus (which causes smallpox) and tobacco mosaic virus (the first virus ever discovered).
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