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The Poetry of Science

Poetry for Design Thinking

That Dish Thing  by Virginia Euwer Wolff

That Dish Thing

by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Richard Julius Petri,
a stout and sturdy German,
was interested in illnesses
and microscopic vermin.

That vile tuberculosis,
its victims aching, moaning;
he didn’t know his research
would someday be called cloning.

Distributing bacteria
in 1882,
he cultured, peered, and poured and stirred
to find out something new.     

But lab equipment way back then
was quite unlike today:
no perfect vessel for the cells.
He pouted in dismay.

The tubes, the flasks, their angles
wouldn’t let bacteria thrive.
Without a way to grow them,
how could the search survive?

Oh, woe for Richard Julius
but, acting on his wish,
he devised a flat container
and now we use the Petri dish.

Poem © 2014 Virginia Euwer Wolff from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science by Sylvia Vardell and Janet S. Wong © 2014 Pomelo Books; illustration by Frank Ramspott from The Poetry of Science: The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science for Kids © 2015 Pomelo Books.   

Take 5!

  1. After reading this poem aloud, show students what a petri dish looks like. If you don’t have an actual dish handy, use online images.
  2. Share the poem again, and invite students to chime in on the crucial last line while you read the rest of the poem aloud.
  3. Expand on this poem story with the National Library of Medicine virtual exhibit on Civil War–era medicine (see Online Resources). Discuss the advancements that have been made in dealing with bacteria and infection.
  4. Use this poem to talk about how scientists use a variety of tools like the petri dish to collect, record, and analyze information. Work together to learn more about Richard Julius Petri and his work. One resource is WhoNamedIt: A Dictionary of Medical Eponyms (Online Resources).
  5. Follow up with another poem about treating disease, “Shots! Shots! Shots!” by Joy Acey (Internet Resources). For more about inventors and innovators, look for Eureka! Poems About Inventors by Joyce Sidman (Resources), or for a poem about bacteria, seek out Sidman’s Ubiquitous (Online Resources).


Wolff, V.E. 2014. “That Dish Thing” in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science, eds. S. Vardell and J. Wong, 236. Princeton, NJ: Pomelo Books.


Sidman, J. 2002. Eureka! Poems about inventors. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press.

Sidman, J. 2010. Ubiquitous: Celebrating nature’s survivors. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Online Resources

Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War

“Shots! Shots! Shots!” by Joy Acey

Virginia Euwer Wolff website

Who Named It?

Interdisciplinary Literacy Elementary

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