Newsletter November 2017

Four new BSM board members have been elected :

Prof. Dr. ir. Eveline Peeters, Microbiology Lab, Vrije Universiteit Brussels (VUB) [from 2018 to 2026].


Dr. Laurence Van Melderen, Bacterial Genetics and Physiology, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) [from 2018 to 2026].


Dr. Sarah Lebeer, Microbiology & Biotechnology, Universiteit Antwerpen (UAntwerpen) [from 2018 to 2026].


Dr. Pieter Monsieurs, Expert group for Molecular and Cellular Biology, Belgian Nuclear Research Center (SCK•CEN) [from 2018 to 2026].


Karoly Ereky (1878-1952) and the (re)birth, rise and decline of the term “Biotechnology”

By  Em. Prof. Dr. ir.  Erick J. Vandamme, Dept. Biochemical and Microbial Technology, Fac. Bioscience Engineering, Ghent University, Belgium

1. Introduction

Most microbiologists and biotechnologists are unaware of the origin and first use of the term “biotechnology“ and will be surprised to hear about its  “course of life” from origin to current use. It appears that the German term “biotechnologie “ was coined around 1917 by the Hungarian agricultural engineer Karoly (Karl ) Ereky (1878-1952), who used the word  in an article he wrote for the German Agricultural Society transactions, where he emphasized the difference between his new industrial view – versus the traditional smallholder-peasant approach – to… pig rearing (Ereky, 1917). He further developed the theme in (the title of) his German book ”Biotechnologie der Fleish-, Fett- und Milcherzeugung im Landwirtschaflichen Grossbetriebe (Biotechnology of meat, fat and milk production  in large scale agricultural industry) (Ereky, 1919; Bud, 1993;  Vandamme, 2016 ). This book was a great success in Germany and sold several thousands of copies within a few weeks and it was reviewed favourably by established scientists from Germany, Hungary, The Netherlands and the UK. The book became a classic work and it defined a new discipline !

Karoly (Karl ) Ereky

2. Early life in an educated family

Karoly  Ereky  was born on 18 October 1878 in the town of Esztergom, Hungary,  as Karoly Wittmann in a family with 3 brothers, named Jeno, Ferenc and Istvan. For unclear reasons, he changed his family name  to Ereky in 1893. His father was Istvan Wittman  and his mother was dukai Maria Takach. Among her ancestors was Judit Takacs (1795-1836), who was the first Hungarian female poet. His youngest brother Istvan became a famous lawyer, university professor and  a and member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Karoly Ereky finished his high school education at Sümeg and Székesfehérvar and   continued his higher studies at the Technical University of Budapest, Hungary. There he obtained his degree in agricultural engineering in 1900. He  worked initially at different companies, designing machines and equipment for the paper and food industry in Vienna, Austria.

3. Visionary scientific career and politically active

In 1905 he returned back to Budapest to become  assistant professor at the Joszef Technical University. He traveled quite a bit and was familiar with agricultural practice in Germany, Denmark and England.  He was an excellent lecturer and skillful debater in the public domain.  He was fluent in German and English, and organized several conferences. In 1919 he became Hungarian Minister of Nutrition for a short period. He was a prolific writer of over 100 publications, mainly published in German, and demonstrated his professional erudition by integrating scientific and technological knowledge with economic insight. In 1922 he published another book on the mode of action of chlorophyll and how it could improve animal feeding; in 1925 another visionary book followed on leaf protein as a new commercial food source  and in the 1930’s he promoted the use of leaves as a source of novel fibres. He had also established a large intensive pig rearing farm (50.000-100.000 pigs/y), slaughterhouse and meat  processing plant near Budapest, Hungary, where “Biotechnologische Arbeitsmachinen“ (biotechnological working-machines; pigs) converted agro- and waste streams into meat, fat, gelatin and skin. It became one of the largest and most profitable meat and fat operations in the world at that time.

Meanwhile he developed the theme that would reiterate through the 20th century:  “biotechnology” could provide solutions to societal crises, such as food and energy shortages. His opinion was valued by governments and scholars not only in Hungary, but also in Germany, The Netherlands, Britain, Australia and Canada. His term “Biotechnologie” encompassed  the processes, whereby raw agro-materials could be biologically upgraded into socially useful products. Obviously he was a man of many interests and with vision, combining application of natural sciences , engineering and technology and economics. He spent a lifetime to advocate his vision of a new technology era based on biochemistry (Fari and Kralovanszky, 2006). Sadly, after World War II, in 1946 Karoly  Ereky  was condemned to 12 years of prison by the People’s Tribunal, being found guilty of  “his counter-revolutionary role“ in public life during and after the fall of the soviet-type communist Council Republic in Hungary. There he died at the age of 74 on June 17th in 1952.

4. Impact of Karl Ereky’s vision

In the  decades  before the turn of the 19th century, chemistry had resulted in  a  technology in itself that  resulted in a growing new industry, the chemical industry. Now Ereky envisaged agriculture and biology combined with engineering  to lead to a new industrial revolution, leading to modern agro-factories functioning on the principles of biotechnology. His vision, soon to be applied on micro- rather than on macro-organisms, became popular among agro-biologists, chemists and engineers. In the 1920’s,  Ereky’s “Biotechnologie” vision was  applied with microorganisms (rather than pigs)  and advocated  by the influential German microbiologist  Paul Lindner (1861-1945), a pupil of Robert Koch, based at the Institut Gärungsgewerbe in Berlin ( Lindner, 1920). This trend was followed especially in Czechoslovakia, The Netherlands, the UK and in the USA.  Based on his perception, by fermenting inexpensive and abundant renewable agricultural produce and waste, both the farmers and the chemical industry would be beneficiaries. This vision led scientists and bio-engineers to produce in the decades to come  a range of “bio”-chemicals (solvents, alcohols, organic acids, enzymes, pharma, fine and bulk chemicals,…) using starch/sugar fermenting microbes (Vandamme, 2016). Though inspirational to many scientists and engineers, Ereky’s new term “biotechnology” was hardly used at all and almost forgotten until the years 1975-1980. The then existing terms to describe this technology, such as industrial fermentation and industrial microbiology, remained widely used until  the late 1980s (Bud, 1993; Vandamme, 2016; Demain et al., 2017 ). Only since then is the term biotechnology really in fashion and – for sure – it  has lived up its promises in science and technology! Today three main application fields of biotechnology include agro/plant-biotechnology, medical biotechnology and industrial biotechnology .


– Bud,R. 1993. The uses of life: A History of Biotechnology, Cambridge University Press.

– Demain, A.L. , Vandamme, E.J. , Collins, J. and Bucholz, K. (2017). History of Industrial Biotechnology, pp.2-84 . In “Industrial Biotechnology: Microorganisms ” , (Ed. Ch. Wittmann ),  J. Wiley & Sons.

– Ereky, K. 1917. Die Grossbetriebsmassige Entwicklung der Schweinemast in Ungarn. Mitteilungen der Deutschen Landwirtschaftslichen Gesellschaft, 34, 541-550

– Ereky,K. 1919. Biotechnologie der Fleisch-, Fett- und Milcherzeugung im Landwirtschaftlichen  Grossbetriebe ( Verlag Paul  Parey, Berlin,VII.,84).

– Fari, M.G., and Kralovanszky, U.P. 2006. The founding father of biotechnology: Karoly (Karl) Ereky. Intern .J. Horticultural Science, 12: 9-12

– Lindner,P. 1920. Algemeines aus dem bereich der Biotechnologie.  Z. Technische Biologie 8:54-56.

-Vandamme, E.J. 2016. The History of Industrial Microbiology from 1900 to 1940 . SIMB News , Vol. 22, (2), 52-63.