Behring, Emil von

views updated May 11 2018

Behring, Emil von

(b. Hansdorf, Germany, 15 March 1854; d Marburg, Germany, 31 March 1917)

medicine, serology.

Behring, one of twelve children of August Georg Behring, a teacher, and his second wife, Augustine Zech, grew up in simple circumstances in Hansdorf, a small town that is now under Polish administration. His father intended him to be a teacher or a minister, both traditional family professions, and in 1866 enrolled him in the Gymnasium of Hohenstein, in East Prussia. During his school years Behring discovered his interest in medicine, but he saw no hope of pursuing it. Accordingly, he planned to enter the University of Königsberg as a theology student.

Fortunately, one of Behring’s teachers arranged for his acceptance at the Friedrich Wilhelms Institute in Berlin, where future military surgeons received a free medical education in return for promising to serve in the Prussian Army for ten years after passing their university examinations. Thus. in 1874 Behring became a cadet at the institute. In 1878 he received the M.D. and in 1880 passed his state board examinations. In the same year he was appointed intern at the Charitè, a Berlin hospital, and in 1881 was attached to a cavalry regiment in Posen (now Poznan, Poland) as assistant surgeon. In between, he served for a short time as physician to a battalion stationed in Wohlau.

Behring, who had shown remarkable dedication at the Friedrich Wilhelms Institute, began to ponder scientific questions during his service in Wohlau and Posen. He was particularly interested in the possibility of combating infectious diseases through the use of disinfectants.

In 1881 Behring wrote his first paper on sepsis and antisepsis in theory and practice. In it he raised the question whether, in addition to external disinfection, the entire living organism could not be disinfected internally. He started investigations on iodoform (discovered as early as 1822 but introduced into wound treatment only in 1880) and the disinfecting effect of its derivatives. In 1882 he published his first treatise, “Experimentelle Arbeiten über desinficierende Mittel,” which had been written in Posen. He had to admit that in many cases the disinfectant’s toxic effect upon the organism was obviously much stronger then its disinfecting effect upon the bacteria. He concluded that the favorable results observed after the application of iodoform to infected wounds were not due to its being a parasiticide, but to its antitoxic effects. On the basis of later research, however, he came to reject its general use. In 1898 he wrote:

The fact that living animal and human body cells show much more sensitivity to disinfecting agents than any hitherto known bacteria may almost be considered a law of nature. As a result, before bacteria are killed by a disinfectant or their growth in the organs can be stunted, the infected animal body itself is killed by this same agent [“Über Heilprinzipien, insbesondere über das ätiologische und das isopathische Heilprinzip,” in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift, 24 . no. 5 (1898), 67].

According to Behring’s own statements, these iodo form experiments were the beginning of his preoccupation with antitoxic blood-serum therapy.

In 1883, at his own request, Behring was transferred from remote West Prussia to Winzig, Silesia. There he published another paper on iodoform poisonings and their treatment. At this time he prepared for the civil service medical examinations, since he planned to enter the Prussian Public Health Service after completing his service as a military surgeon. In 1887 he was promoted to captain and sent to the Pharmacological Institute in Bonn for further training. The director of this institute, Carl Binz, was especially interested in all problems concerning disinfectants. In the same year Behring published a report on new investigations concerning iodoform and acetylene. At the institute he acquired the knowledge and working habits necessary for accurate animal experiments and research in toxicology. In 1888 Behring was sent to Berlin, and after a brief service at the Academy for Military Medicine, in 1889 he joined the Institute for Hygiene of the University of Berlin, then presided over by Robert Koch. Here, between 1889 and 1895, Behring developed his pioneering ideas on serum therapy and his theory of antitoxins. Also in 1889, Behring finished his army service and became Koch’s full-time assistant.

As early as 1887, in Bonn, Behring had ascertained that the serum of tetanus-immune white rats contained a substance that neutralized anthrax bacilli. This he saw as the cause of “resistance.” Beginning in 1889, he worked in Berlin with Shibasaburo Kitasato on the isolation and definition of this agent. One of their goals was still the discovery of suitable systemic disinfecting agents, especially against anthrax, for which iodine, gold, and zinc compounds were tested. But of greater promise were experiments aimed at inhibiting the causative agents by using certain sera similar in effect to disinfectants, since the organism showed far greater tolerance to the sera. On 4 December 1890 Behring and Kitasato jointly published their first paper on blood-serum therapy, followed on 11 December by another report, signed by Behring alone, which discussed the blood-serum therapy not only in the treatment of tetanus but also of diphtheria. In it he stressed four points:

(1) The blood of tetanus-immune rabbits possesses tetanus toxin-destroying properties.

(2) These properties are also present in extravascular blood and in the cell-free serum obtained from the letter.

(3) These properties are so lasting that they remain effective when injected into other animals, thus making it possible to achieve excellent therapeutic effects with blood or serum transfusions.

(4) Tetanus toxin-destroying properties are not present in the blood of animals not immune to tetanus.

Behring immediately recognized that evidently a new principle of defense by the organism against infection had been discovered, one that clearly clashed with the then-prevalent cellular pathology of Virchow. Subsequently, Behring clashed with Virchow over the importance of his discoveries. One day before the publication of Behring’s discovery, Ludwig Brieger and Carl Fränkel published a paper in the Berliner klinische Wochenschrift on the isolation of a protein substance—in their opinion a toxic substance—from bacteria; they called it “toxalbumine” and ascribed to it the severity of various infectious diseases. In the following years, however, Behring was able to show that the therapeutic principle in the serum, which he called “antitoxin” was ineffective against “toxalbumine” but acted against a specific toxin secreted by the bacteria. Incidentally, he succeeded in obtaining his new antitoxin-containing blood serum from guinea pigs treated not only with live diphtheria bacilli but also with diphtheria toxin alone in increasing dosages. Thus, in contrast with the hitherto prevailing phagocytosis theory of Élie Metchnikoff, he demonstrated the humoral defense capacities of the organism. Accordingly, he terminated his first work with the famous passage from Goethe’s Faust:“Blood is a very special liquid.”

When Paul Ehrlich demonstrated in 1891 that even vegetable poisons led to the formation of antitoxins in the organism, Behring’s theory was confirmed and a lifelong friendship was formed. Both Behring and Ehrlich were then serving as assistants at the Koch Institute in Berlin. Behring immediately recognized the unusual importance of his discovery, and wrote:

For hundreds and thousands of years the wisest physicians and scientists have studied the properties of blood and its relation to health and illness, without ever suspecting the specific antibodies appearing in the blood as a result of an infectious disease, which are capable of rendering infectious toxins harmless [Kleinschmidt, p. 347].

In 1891, at the Seventh International hygiene Congress in London, Behring apperared for the first time before the public and delivered a lecture entitled “Desinfektion am lebenden Organismus.” He stressed that his method resulted above all in a natural increase of natural healing powers, leading in turn to increased resistance to nerve and cell toxins produced by pathogens. In 1892 he published his investigations in Die praktischen Ziele der Blutserumtherapie and der Immunisierungsmethoden zum Zwecke der Gewinnung von Heilserum and Das Tetanusheilserum and seine Anwendung auf tetanuskranke Menschen. Behring had to defend himself incessantly against all kinds of attacks. Failures due to the low antitoxin content or his first sera made his enthusiastic statements lesscredible. Furthermore, Behring—who at times used sharp language in his polemics—was forced to take issue with priorty claims by other authors.

The legendary account of the first use of diphtheria serum on a patient on Christmas Eve 1891 has not been fully verified. A crital case of diphtheria is said to have been successfully treated with the serum by Behring’s colleagues Geissler and Wernicke, in the infectious-disease ward of the surgical clinic of Berlin University. It is doubtful that sufficient serum was available at that time, since it was obtained exclusively from guinea pigs and then from sheep. When, in 1894, Roux and André Martin introduced the immunization of horses, Behring immediately adopted and extended this procedure. From 1892 on, he was backed by Farbwerke Meister, Lucius and Brüning, a dye works in Höchst, a suburb of Frankfurt. Until then Behring had put his own money in his research.

From 1893 on, serum therapy experimentation was conducted on a more extensive scale. In that year Behring became professor. Soon afterward there appeared the first publications by Hermann Kossel and Otto Heubner on results obtained with the new serum therapy, which reduced the mortality rate from 52 percent to 25 percent. In 1894 the first serum therapy experiments were carried out in France, England, and the United States. In the meantime, in 1893 Behring had written two important works on problems of great interest to him, Die ätiologische Behandlung der Infektionskrankheiten and Geschichte der Diphtherie, to which he added two books on the treatment of infectious diseases (1894, 1898).

Behring was quick to see that in order to obtain results in man, methods for standardizing the serum must be found. These methods were developed in 1897 by Ehrlich. Since 1895, however, standardization of the serum had been under state control. In 1896 the control authority became the Institute for Serum Research and Testing; today it is known as the Paul Ehrilich Institute and performs the same tasks on a more extensive scale.

In the fall of 1894 Behring, whose relationship with Koch had perceptibly cooled, was appointed associate professor of hygiene in Halle. He taught there for only a short time and with moderate success. The following year he was appointed professor of hygiene in Marburg—against the wishes of the Medical Faculty and thanks to determined efforts on his behalf by Friedrich Althoff, a powerful figure in the Prussian Ministry for Education. In Marburg, Behring carried on intensive research and organized what is now known as the Behring Institute. In the meantime, he had acquired great renown, especially in France, where Roux and Metchnikoff had become his close friends. He was made an officer of the Legion of Honor in 1895 and with Roux shared the 50,000-franc prize of the Académie de Médecine as well as the 50,000-franc prize of the Académie des Sciences. Also in 1895 he received the Prussian title of Geheimrat (privy councillor), and in 1901 his lifework was crowned with the first Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, followed by his elevation to the hereditary nobility.

Beginning in 1889, Behring dedicated himself to a new task, the fight against tuberculosis. In competition with Koch he also attempted to find a substance suitable for tuberculosis vaccination. Finally, he felt he had succeeded with “tulase,” an extract from tuberculosis bacilli treated with chloral hydrate, but his vaccination attempts failed. Nevertheless, we are indebted to Behring for his important findings on the spread of tuberculosis, which he ascribed mainly to the consumption by infants with Koch, he was convinced bovine and human tuberculosis were identical a belief based on an understandable error. Nevertheless, his suggestions for combating bovine tuberculosis were of extreme importance and brought about vital changes in public health policy. In 1900, however, he realized that he was not achieving his objective and concluded one of his papers as follows: “Here I should like to say simply that I have definitely abandoned my hope for obtaining antitoxin for humans from cured and immunized tubercular cattle. Consequently, I have stopped searching for an antitoxin against tuberculosis.”

Nevertheless, Behring’s preoccupation with tuberculosis continued, and in 1903 and 1904 he devoted two monographs to this subject. Finally, in 1905 he suggested disinfection of milk for infants by adding Formalin and hydrogen peroxide, a process that proved impractical.

In 1913, in dogged pursuit of his theory of the origin of antitoxins as a result of insufficient toxin in the organism, Behring introduced active preventive vaccination against diphtheria, Its basis was a balanced toxin-antitoxin mixture, rendered stable by formaldehyde.

World War I, which separated Behring from his friends outside Germany, helped to substantiate his theories. The preventive, although still passive, tetanus vaccination saved the lives of millions of German soldiers. For his contributions Behring was a warded the Iron Cross, an unusual decoration for a non-combatant.

In 1896 Behring and married Else Spinola, daughter of one of the directors of the Charité Hospital in Berlin, who bore him six sons. The Villa Behring in Marburg, still standing today, was the gathering place of society. Behring also owned a house on Capri, where he was fond of vacationing. He liked to seclude himself in Switzerland, especially when suffering from the serious depressions that occasionally required sanatorium treatment. A fractured thigh, which initially seemed harmless, led to a pseudarthrosis that resulted in increasingly limited mobility,. When Behring contracted pneumonia, his already weakened constitution was unable to with stand the multiple strain, and he died in Marburg on 31 March 1917.

For the discovery of antitoxins and the development of passive and active preventive vaccinations against diphtheria and tetanus, Behring was honored with the epithet “Children’s Savior.” By the same token, he could be called the “Soldier’s Savior.” His modern concepts raised humoral pathology to renewed importance, and he was certainly the equal of the other two pioneers in bacteriology, Pasteur and Koch. In his antitoxin theory Behring discovered a new principle in the fight against infections. He was able to realize his plan for an important and worthwhile lifework only by single-mindedly pursuing his original ideas. He thereby became involved in disputes with certain experts. Also, since he embraced the principle of “authority, not majority,” he was not particularly adept at making friends or founding a school. He remained one of the great solitary figures in the history of medicine.


I. Original Works. Most of Behring’s scientific papers may be found in two editions of collected works, the first covering the period 1882–1893 and the second the later period up to 1915: Gesammelte Abhandlugen zur ätiologischen Therpaie von ansteckenden Krankheiten (Leipzing, 1893); and Gesammelte Abhandlungen. Neue Folge (Bonn, 1915). The most important papers and monogrpahs are “Über lodoform und lodoformwirkung” in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift, 8 (1882), 146–148; “Die Bedeutung des lodoforms in der antiseptrischen Wundbehandlung,” ibid., 323–329; “Über das Zustandekommen der Diphtherie–lmmunität and der Tetanus-lmmunitat bei Thieren,” ibid., 16 (1890), 113–114, written with S. Kitasato; “Untersuchungen über das Zustandekommen der Diphtherie–lmmunitat bei Thieren,” 1145–1148; “Über Immunisierung und Heilung von versuchsthieren bei der Diphtherie,” in Zeitschrift für Hygiene und Infektionskrankheiten, 12 (1892), 10–44, written with E. Wernicke; Die praktischen Ziele der Blusterumtherapie und die Immunisierungsmethoden zum Zwecke der Gewinnung von Heilserum (Leipzig, 1892); “Die Behandlung der Diphtherie mit Diphtherieheilserum,” in Deutsche medizinische Wocheschrift, 19 (1893), 543–547, and 20 (1894), 645–646; Die Geschichte der Diphtherie (Leipzig,1893); Die Bekämpfung der infektionskrankheiten (Lepzig, 1894; Allgemeine Therapie der Infektionskrankheiten (Berlin-Vienna,1898); Diehthereie, Begriffsbestimmung, Zustandekommen, Erkennung und Verhutüng (Berlin,1901); Tuberkulosebekämpfung (Marburg, 1903); “Tuberkuloseentstheung, Tuberkulosebekämpfung und Säuglingsernährung,” in Beiträge zur experimentellen Therapie, 8 (1904); Einführung in die Lehre von der Bekämpfung der infektionskrankhetitn (Berlin, 1912); and “Über cinncues Diphtherieschutzmittel,” in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift, 39 (1913), 873–876, and 40 (1914), 1139.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biography, with many illustrations and references, is H. Zeiss and R. Bieling, Behring. Gestalt and Werk (Berlin, 1940). An exhaustive bibliography may be found in H. Dold, In memoriam Paul Ehrlich and Emil von Behring zur 70. Wiederkehr ihrer Geburtstage(Berlin, 1924). A biographical novel is H. Unger, Emil von Behring (Hamburg, 1948). Additional biographical articles are E. Bauereisen, “Emil von Behring,” in Neue deutsche Biographie, li ((Berlin, 1955), 14–15; H. von Behring, “Emil v. Behring,” in Lebensbilder aus Kurhessen and Waldeck,1 (1935), 10-14; and “Emil v. Behring zum 100. Geburtstag,” in Deutsches medizinisches Journal, 5 (1954), 172–173; A. Beyer, “Zum 100. Geburtstag von Paul Ehrlich and Emil v. Behring,” in Deutsches Gesundheitswesen, 9 (1954), 293-296; C. H. Browning, “Emil von Behring and Paul Ehrlich; Their Contributions to Science,” in Nature, 175 (1955), 616-619; K. W. Clauberg, “Das immunologische Vermächtinis Emil von Behrings and Paul Ehrlichs,” in Deutsches medizinisches Journal, 5 (1954), 138–146; C. Hallauer, “Emil von Behring and sein Werk,” in Schweizerische Zeitschrift für allgemeine Pathologie and Bakteriologie, 17 (1954), 392–399: M. Jantsch, “Gemeinsames im wissenschaftlichen Werk Ehrlichs and Behrings,” in Wiener klinische Wochenschrift, 66 (1954), 181–182; H. Klein-schmidt, “Zuni 100. Geburtstag von Emil v. Behring,” in Medizinische (1954), 347-348; A. S. Macnalty, “Emil von Behring,” in British Medical Journal (1954), 1 668–670; and P. Schaaf, Emil von Behring zurn Gedächtnis. Herausgegeben von der Universität Marburg (Marburg, 1944); Robbert Koch and Emil von Behring. Ursprung and Geist einer Forschung (Berlin, 1944); and obituary notices in British Medical Journal(1917), 1, 498; and Lancer(1917), 1, 890.

H. Schadewaldtz

Behring, Emil Von (1854-1917)

views updated May 14 2018

Behring, Emil von (1854-1917)

German bacteriologist

Emil von Behring's discovery of the diphtheria and tetanus antitoxins paved the way for the prevention of these diseases through the use of immunization . It also opened the door for the specific treatment of such diseases with the injection of immune serum. Behring's stature as a seminal figure in modern medicine and immunology was recognized in 1901, when he received the first Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Emil Adolf von Behring was born in Hansdorf, West Prussia (now Germany). He was the eldest son of August Georg Behring, a schoolmaster with thirteen children, and his second wife, Augustine Zech Behring. Although his father planned for him to become a minister, young Behring had an inclination toward medicine. One of Behring's teachers, recognizing both the great promise and meager circumstances of his student, arranged for his admission to the Army Medical College in Berlin, where he was able to obtain a free medical education in exchange for future military service. Behring received his doctor of medicine degree in 1878, and two years later he passed the state examination that allowed him to practice medicine.

The army promptly sent Behring to Posen (now Poznan, Poland), then to Bonn in 1887, and finally back to Berlin in 1888. His first published papers, which date from this period, dealt with the use of iodoform as an antiseptic. After completing his military service in 1889 Behring became an assistant at the Institute of Hygiene in Berlin, joining a team of researchers headed by German scientist Robert Koch (18431910), a leading light in the new science of bacteriology.

It was while working in Koch's laboratory that Behring began his pioneering investigations of diphtheria and tetanus. Both of these diseases are caused by bacteria that do not spread widely through the body, but produce generalized symptoms by excreting toxins. Diphtheria, nicknamed the "strangling angel" because of the way it obstructs breathing, was a terrible killer of children in the late nineteenth century. Its toxin had first been detected by others in 1888. Tetanus, likewise, was fatal more often than not. In 1889 the tetanus bacillus was cultivated in its pure state for the first time by the Japanese physician Shibasaburo Kitasato (18521931), another member of Koch's team.

The next year Behring and Kitasato jointly published their classic paper, "Ueber das Zustandekommen der Diphtherie-Immunität und der Tetanus-Immunität bei Thieren" ("The Mechanism of Immunity in Animals to Diphtheria and Tetanus"). One week later Behring alone published another paper dealing with immunity against diphtheria and outlining five ways in which it could be achieved. These reports announced that injections of toxin from diphtheria or tetanus bacilli led animals to produce in their blood substances capable of neutralizing the disease poison.

Behring and Kitasato dubbed these substances antitoxins. Furthermore, injections of blood serum from an animal that had been given a chance to develop antitoxins to tetanus or diphtheria could confer immunity to the disease on other animals, and even cure animals that were already sick.

Several papers confirming and amplifying these results, including some by Behring himself, appeared in rapid succession. In 1893 Behring described a group of human diphtheria patients who were treated with antitoxin. That same year, he was given the title of professor. However, Behring's diphtheria antitoxin did not yield consistent results. It was the bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich (18541915), another of the talented associates in Koch's lab, who was chiefly responsible for standardizing the antitoxin, thus making it practical for widespread therapeutic use. Working together, Ehrlich and Behring also showed that high-quality antitoxin could be obtained from horses, as well as from the sheep used previously, opening the way for large-scale production of the antitoxin.

In 1894 Behring accepted a position as professor at the University of Halle. A year later he was named a professor and director of the Institute of Hygiene at the University of Marburg. Thereafter he focused much of his attention on the problem of immunization against tuberculosis . His assumption, unfounded as it turned out, was that different forms of the disease in humans and in cattle were closely related. He tried immunizing calves with a weakened strain of the human tuberculosis bacillus, but the results were disappointing. Although his bovine vaccine was widely used for a time in Germany, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, it was found that the cattle excreted dangerous microorganisms afterward. Nevertheless, Behring's basic idea of using a bacillus from one species to benefit another influenced the development of later vaccines.

Behring did not entirely abandon his work on diphtheria during this period. In 1913 he announced the development of a toxin-antitoxin mixture that resulted in longer-lasting immunity than did antitoxin serum alone. This approach was a forerunner of modern methods of preventing, rather than just treating, the disease. Today, children are routinely and effectively vaccinated against diphtheria and tetanus.

However, the first great drop in diphtheria mortality was due to the antitoxin therapy introduced earlier by Behring, and it is for this contribution that he is primarily remembered. The fall in the diphtheria death rate around the turn of the century was sharp. In Germany alone, an estimated 45,000 lives per year were saved. Accordingly, Behring received the 1901 Nobel Prize "for his work on serum therapy, especially its application against diphtheria, by which he... opened a new road in the domain of medical science and thereby placed in the hands of the physician a victorious weapon against illness and deaths." Behring was also elevated to the status of nobility and shared a sizable cash prize from the Paris Academy of Medicine with Émile Roux , the French bacteriologist who was one of the men who had discovered the diphtheria toxin in 1888. In addition, Behring was granted honorary memberships in societies in Italy, Turkey, France, Hungary, and Russia.

There were other financial rewards as well. From 1901 onward, ill health prevented Behring from giving regular lectures, so he devoted himself to research. A commercial firm in which he had a financial interest built a well-equipped laboratory for his use in Marburg, Germany. Then, in 1914, Behring established his own company to manufacture serums and vaccines. The profits from this venture allowed him to keep a large estate at Marburg, on which he grazed cattle used in experiments. This house was a gathering place of society. Behring also owned a vacation home on the island of Capri in the Mediterranean.

In 1896 Behring married the daughter of the director of a Berlin hospital. The couple had seven children. Despite outward appearances of personal and professional success, Behring was subject to frequent bouts of serious depression. He contracted pneumonia in 1917 and soon after died in Marburg, Germany.

See also Antibody and antigen; Antibody formation and kinetics; Bacteria and bacterial infection; History of immunology; History of microbiology; History of public health; Immune stimulation, as a vaccine; Immune system; Immunity, active, passive and delayed; Immunity, cell mediated; Immunity, humoral regulation; Immunization

Behring, Emil von

views updated May 18 2018

Behring, Emil von

Emil von Behring (1854-1917) made major contributions to the understanding of the body's immune (biological defense) system, discovered the first successful treatment for tetanus (a dangerous infectious disease caused by bacteria that enters through a wound or opening in the skin), and came to be known as the "Children's Savior" for his success in conquering diphtheria. Behring was born in Hansdorf, Germany, into a family of 12 children. He studied at the University of Berlin, earning his medical degree in 1880. He served several years as a surgeon in the Prussian Army Medical Corps. It was then that he became interested in infection and how substances in the blood fight disease.

In 1889, Behring went to the University of Berlin to work in the laboratory of Heinrich Koch (1843-1910; German bacteriologist). Behring made some of his most important discoveries while working there with Japanese bacteriologist Shibasaburo Kitasato (1852-1931; first president of the Japanese Medical Association). The two men studied how the blood produces substances that neutralize toxins (invading organisms). Behring called these substances antitoxins (antibodies). Antitoxins or antibodies are the body's soldiers in the fight against a disease-causing organism.

Blood Serum Therapy

One of the largest killers of young children, the bacterial disease diphtheria swept through Western Europe in the late 1800s. It would create tissues in the throat that tended to block the air way, causing the victim to choke to death. Another frequent epidemic of this period was tetanus, also known as "lockjaw". This disease causes severe muscle spasms and is carried by toxins produced by bacteria that live in soil. Behring and Kitasato found that when animals were injected with small amounts of diphtheria toxins, their blood produced antitoxins which would neutralize the invading organisms. These immunized animals would also remain resistant to the disease for long periods of time, and the antitoxin serum extracted (taken) from their blood could be used to treat other animals. Behring and Kitasato called this technique blood serum therapy, and announced their discovery in 1890. Shortly afterward, Behring published another paper in which he applied the same ideas to diphtheria.

Behring became a professor at the University of Halle (Germany) in 1894, and shortly after, at the University of Marburg (Germany). There he established what is known as the Behring Institute and continued one of his other research interests, the fight against tuberculosis. Although Behring was unable to discover a tuberculosis vaccine, he proposed the theory that the disease was spread by infants drinking milk contaminated by tuberculosis bacilli and devised methods to disinfect the milk. He also continued to search for improved treatments for diphtheria. In 1913 Behring introduced a new toxin-antitoxin preparation that gave longer-lasting immunity to the disease.

Behring's vaccines helped to save the lives of millions of injured soldiers in World War I (1914-1918), as well as countless others threatened by tetanus and diphtheria. For his work, Behring received the first Nobel Prize for medicine in 1901. He died in Marburg in 1917.

Emil Adolph von Behring

views updated May 14 2018

Emil Adolph von Behring

The German hygienist and physician Emil Adolph von Behring (1854-1917) is famous for his discovery of antitoxins and his pioneering work in the treatment of diphtheria and certain other diseases.

Emil Adolph von Behring was born on March 15, 1854, at Forsthausen, West Prussia. After training at the University of Berlin and passing the state medical examination in 1880, he entered the army medical service. While in the service, he worked for a time with K. Binz, pharmacologist and chemist, on iodoform, a chemical homolog of chloroform, which was then considered highly effective as a dusting powder for the treatment of deep ulcers. In 1889 he joined the staff of the Robert Koch Institute of Hygiene in Berlin, and it was there that his outstanding contributions were produced.

When Behring began his experiments, the germ theory of disease was becoming well established and immunology was a rapidly developing discipline. In Koch's laboratory Behring worked with the eminent Japanese bacteriologist S. Kitasato. In 1890 Behring presented two papers, one with Kitasato, discussing the immunity of animals to diphtheria and tetanus. They demonstrated that certain substances (antitoxins) in the blood serum of both humans and animals who had recovered from the disease, either spontaneously or by treatment, showed preventive and curative properties. Animals injected with this immune blood were shown to be resistant to fatal doses of bacteria or toxin. Further, animals treated with the serum after contracting the disease could be cured.

For prophylactic immunization against diphtheria, Behring suggested the injection of a mixture of toxin and antitoxin. This method, the forerunner of modern disease prevention, became practicable when certain reagents, for example, formaldehyde, were added to the mixture to produce a "toxoid"; the reagents preserved the immunizing property of the mixture while removing its poisonous characters.

For these advances in serum therapeutics, Behring received the Nobel Prize in 1881, being the first medical man so honored; he was also created privy councilor with the title of Excellenz and received many distinctions and prizes. For the discovery of antitoxins and the development of vaccinations, Behring was honored with the epithet "Children Savior." When he contracted pneumonia, he was already in a weakened state of health and was unable to withstand the strain. He died in Marburg on March 31, 1917.

Further Reading

A biography of Behring and a description of his work are in Theodore L. Sourkes, Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology, 1901-1965 (1967). Charles Singer, A History of Biology to about the Year 1900 (1931; 3d ed. 1959), and D. Guthrie, A History of Medicine (1946), are useful for historical background. □

Behring, Emil Adolph von

views updated May 21 2018

Behring, Emil Adolph von (1854–1917) German bacteriologist and pioneer immunologist. In 1901 he received the first Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his work on serum therapy, developing immunization against diphtheria (1890) and tetanus (1892) by injections of antitoxins. His discoveries led to the treatment of many childhood diseases.