August von Wassermann

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Wassermann, August von


August von Wassermann discovered a blood serum test that enabled physicians to determine if a patient has syphilis, a potentially lethal disease which, in some persons, has a long latency period during which no symptoms are detectable.

Wassermann was born in Bamberg, Germany to Dora (Bauer) and Angelo Wassermann, a banker. Wassermann received his secondary education in Bamberg and studied medicine at several German and Austrian universities. Wassermann married Alice von Taussig in 1895 and the couple eventually had two sons. He received his M.D. degree in 1888 at the University of Strasbourg. In 1890, Wassermann began work at the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Berlin, which was directed by the famous bacteriologist Robert Koch.

Although Wassermann did important work on tetanus, cholera, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, he is best known for his discovery of a blood serum test (now called the Wassermann test) that showed if a patient was infected with syphilis. The bacterium that causes syphilis, Treponema pallidum, can lay dormant in a person's body for many years, even a lifetime, without ever manifesting overt symptoms. Syphilis can be spread by sexual intercourse or from a pregnant mother to her fetus. Therefore, people who are infected with the bacterium need to be identified, so they can be treated and do not spread the disease unintentionally.

In 1906, Wassermann and Albert Neisser developed a syphilis test for the blood serum of patients. Serum is the pale yellow fluid that is one of the constituents of blood. People with syphilis produce a specific antibody , which is a molecule in the blood serum produced by the body's immune system to attack the syphilis bacterium. When a patient's blood serum with the syphilis antibody is introduced into a mixture of beef heart extract, animal blood serum, and washed red blood cells, the patient's antibody combines with parts of the mixture to create visible clumps of cells, which demonstrate the presence of the antibody and thus, the presence of the syphilis bacterium. Wassermann's test helped doctors detect syphilis in babies and adults in order to treat the disease more effectively at an earlier stage in its development. The Wassermann test is a useful, inexpensive screening procedure. However, if positive, it must be confirmed with a more specific blood test.

From 1903 to 1909, in collaboration with Wilhelm Kolle, Wassermann wrote the six-volume Handbuch der pathogenen Mikroorganismen, a book detailing disease-producing microorganisms. Wassermann was named the director of the department of experimental therapy at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1913. In 1924, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, and he died in Berlin the following year. Wassermann continued to direct the department of experimental therapy up until his death.

see also Serology.

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WASSERMANN, AUGUST VON (1866–1925), bacteriologist and immunologist. Born in Bamberg, he studied medicine and worked initially at the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Berlin, under Robert Koch. In 1906 he was appointed head of the Serum Department in the institute, and in 1913, head of the Institute of Experimental Medicine at Dahlem near Berlin. Wassermann was one of the founders of immunology, his great discovery being the reaction for the sero-diagnosis of syphilis, which bears his name. This test, which he published in 1906 together with Albert Neisser and Carl Bruck, became one of the most important methods of the sero-diagnosis, and Wassermann used it to prove the syphilitic nature of the tabes dorsalis and progressive paralysis. He developed specific antisera for determining the origin of proteins and blood cells originating from different animals; he also investigated, with Paul *Ehrlich, methods for the determination of the potency of therapeutic sera. He co-edited the first encyclopedia of medical bacteriology and immunology, Handbuch der pathogenen Mikroorganismen (1903–13). In 1913 he was ennobled. Throughout his life he remained linked to Judaism.


S.R. Kagan, Jewish Medicine (1952), 252–3; W. Bullock, History of Bacteriology (1938; repr. 1960).

[Aryeh Leo Olitzki]

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Wassermann reaction (wass-er-măn) n. formerly, the most commonly used test for the diagnosis of syphilis. A sample of the patient's blood is examined for the presence of antibodies to Treponema pallidum. [ A. P. von Wassermann (1866–1925), German bacteriologist]

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(b. Bamberg, Bavaria, Germany, 21 February 1866; d, Berlin, Germany, 15 March 1925), bacteriology.

For a detailed account of his life and work, see Supplement.