Emil von Behring (1854–1917)
The German bacteriologist and Nobel Prize winner Emil von Behring ranks among the most important medical scientists at the end of the 19th century. Behring was born in Hansdorf, West Prussia, as the son of a teacher in 1854. He grew up in crowded circumstances among twelve brothers and sisters. His desire to study medicine could only be realized by fulfilling the obligation to work as a military doctor for a longer period of time.
Between 1874 and 1878 he studied medicine at the Akademie für das militärärztliche Bildungswesen in Berlin. In 1890, after having published his paper Ueber das Zustandekommen der Diphtherie-Immunität und der Tetanus-Immunität bei Thieren (with Shibasaburo Kitasato), he achieved his scientific breakthrough. Whilst working as Robert Koch’s scientific assistant at the Berlin Hygienic Institute he was able to show – together with his Japanese colleague Kitasato (1852–1931) – through animal experimentation that it was possible to neutralize pathogenic germs by giving „antitoxins“. Behring demonstrated that the antitoxic qualities of blood are not found in cells, but in the cell-free serum. Antitoxins recovered from human convalenscents or laboratorty animals prove themselves to be life-saving when applied to diseased humans.
At last – due to Behring’s discovery of the body’s own immune defence and due to his development of serotherapy against diphtheria and tetanus – an agent existed which was able to combat via antitoxin those infectious diseases which had already broken out. Having developed a serum therapy against diphtheria and tetanus, Behring won the first Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1901.
Six years before, in 1895, he had become professor of hygienics within the faculty of medicine at the University of Marburg, a position he would hold for the rest of his life. With the aid of the prize money of 169.000 Mark, Behring founded – together with Dr. Carl Siebert – the Behringwerk in Marburg in the year 1904.
To this date, vaccines continue to be produced there.
(Ulrike Enke, 6/2012)