Von Gruber, Max (1853-1927)

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von Gruber, Max (1853-1927)

Austrian physician and bacteriologist

Max von Gruber's discovery of specific bacterial agglutination in 1896 laid the groundwork for significant advances in serology and immunology .

Gruber was born in Vienna, the son of a prominent physician, Ignaz Gruber (18031872), and his wife, née Gabrielle Edle von Menninger. His brother, Franz von Gruber (18371918), became famous as an architect, military engineer, and teacher. After preparing for college at the Schottengymnasium in Vienna, Gruber studied chemistry and physiology at the University of Vienna, earned his M.D. there in 1876, then took postgraduate instruction in the biosciences under Max Josef von Pettenkoffer (18181901) in Vienna, Carl von Voit (18311908) and Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli (18171891) in Munich, Germany, and Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (18161895) in Leipzig, Germany. Among his fellow graduate students under Pettenkoffer was Hans Buchner (18501902), who urged Gruber toward bacteriology.

Gruber began lecturing on hygiene at the University of Vienna in 1882, became professor of hygiene at the University of Graz, Austria, in 1884, and assumed the same position in 1887 at the University of Vienna, where he remained until 1902. He was promoted in 1891 to full professor. He was unhappy in Vienna because he considered the facilities ill kept and substandard. Nevertheless, he was able to attract to Vienna such stellar graduate students as future Nobel laureate Karl Landsteiner (18681943), Alois Lode (b. 1866), and Herbert Edward Durham (18661945). From 1902 until he retired in 1923, Gruber was director of the Institute for Hygiene, Munich.

In March, 1896, Gruber and Durham published a landmark article in a prestigious journal, Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift [Munich Medical Weekly], which described how bacteria of similar size clump together in sera, in ways specific to or determined by each serum. Their research concerned the typhoid bacillus Salmonella typhi, the cholera bacillus Vibrio cholerae, and the respective sera of typhoid and cholera patients. This clumping process, agglutination, soon had wider implications for serology, immunology, bacteriology, and clinical medicine. The first important practical consequence of Gruber's work on bacterial agglutination occurred in June 1896, when the French physician Georges Fernand Isidor Widal (18621929) developed a diagnostic agglutination test for typhoid, thereafter known as the Gruber-Widal test or the Gruber-Widal reaction.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Gruber's main interest shifted toward right-wing social theory, political eugenics, and so-called "racial hygiene." His Hygiene des Geschlechtslebens [Sexual Hygiene] first appeared in 1903, was reprinted or revised fifty-two times by 1925, and was translated into many languages, including English. With psychiatrist Ernst Rüdin (18741952), later a Nazi, Gruber co-edited Fortpflanzung, Vererbung, und Rassenhygiene [Propagation, Inheritance, and Racial Hygiene] in 1911. Thereafter, much of his work was political propaganda. Gruber attended Adolph Hitler's first big rally in 1921 and was impressed by Hitler's control of the crowd and command of issues. Gruber died in Berchtesgaden, Germany, on September 16, 1927.

See also Antibody-antigen, biochemical and molecular reactions; Bacteria and bacterial infection; History of immunology; Typhoid fever

Gruber, Max von

views updated May 23 2018

Gruber, Max von

(b. Vienna, Austria, 6 July 1853; d. Berchtesgaden, Germany, 16 September 1927)


Gruber, the youngest of five children, grew up in the center of the old section of Vienna. His father, Ignaz, a general practitioner and otologist who had published a two-volume textbook on chemistry, awakened Max’s interest in that field; and from his mother, Gabriele Edle von Menninger, he inherited his love for nature. After graduating from the Schottengymnasium he entered the First Chemical Institute of the University of Vienna as demonstrator (5 April 1876) even before completing his medical studies and went on to become an assistant. From 1879 to 1883 Gruber improved his knowledge of chemistry and physiology under Max von Pettenkofer and Karl von Volt in Munich and Karl Ludwig in Leipzig.

Hans Buchner, who worked with Gruber under Pettenkofer, encouraged him to concentrate on bacteriology. He called Gruber’s attention to the work of Carl Wilhelm von Naegeli, who concerned himself with bacteriology from the botanist’s point of view. Whereas Naegeli and Theodor Billroth believed in the unlimited variability of bacteria and Ferdinand Cohn, followed by Robert Koch, supported a rigid constancy of bacterial characteristics, Gruber recognized that bacteria possess a variability within limits partially determined by the culture medium. The establishment of this theory was important for the differentiation of the categories of bacteria and gained significance for Gruber in his examinations of cholera vibrios, enabling him to distinguish them from other vibrios.

Gruber was made lecturer in Vienna at the age of twenty-nine; less than two years later he became associate professor and head of the newly established Institute for Hygiene at the University of Graz, Austria. He was particularly concerned with public health, and during this period he successfully combated the cholera epidemic which had broken out in southern Austria in 1885–1886.

After the death of Josef Nowak, Gruber became associate professor at Vienna on 23 March 1887; and on 10 December 1891 he was named full professor, the second to occupy the chair of hygiene established in 1875 at the University of Vienna. He was handicapped in his new post by the limited space in the makeshift quarters of the Institute for Hygiene and by the troublesome administrative duties and difficulties with the authorities. These obstacles weighed so heavily on Gruber that after the death of his first wife in 1888, and despite being a member of the Vienna Academy of Sciences, he attempted to resign his chair and find employment as head of a laboratory in Munich or at the Jenner Institute in London, under Joseph Lister.

In October 1902 Gruber succeeded Hans Buchner as director of the Institute for Hygiene in Munich. He held the post until his voluntary retirement in 1923, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. From then until his death, he concentrated completely on his duties as president of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.

While in Vienna, Gruber discovered the agglutination which gained him international fame. He and his English student Herbert Edward Durham found that the blood serum of animals inoculated with typhoid or cholera bacteria some time before agglutinated these bacteria. The significance of this phenomenon in nature is that even though the bacteria are not killed by the specific agglutinins, they become more susceptible to the attack of the unspecific alexins of the body. These results were announced by Durham on 3 January 1896, in Proceedings of the Royal Society, and by Gruber himself on 28 February 1896, to the Society of Physicians in Vienna. Shortly afterward these findings were published in Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift (3 March 1896), Semaine médicale (4 March 1896), and Wiener klinische Wochenschrift (12 March 1896). The priority of Gruber’s discovery, contested at the time by Richard Pfeiffer, has long since been fully recognized.

The practical application of the agglutination reaction in the determination of unknown bacteria by means of artificially produced agglutinating animal sera was proved by Gruber in joint research with Albert Sidney Grünbaum, his other English student. The reverse problem of diagnosing typhoid fever by showing evidence of specific agglutinins in the serum of patients was correctly recognized and presented by Grünbaum on 9 April 1896 to the Fourteenth Congress of Internal Medicine in Wiesbaden. Gruber and Grünbaum could furnish proof of this with only two patients, however, because the occurrence of typhoid fever had greatly diminished since the introduction to Vienna of a central water supply from mountain springs in 1873. On 26 June 1896 Ferdinand Widal lectured at the Société Médicale des Hôpitaux de Paris on the serological diagnosis of typhoid fever, based on patients from Paris. This diagnostic method today is called the Gruber-Widal reaction.

The side-chain theory of antibodies, established by Paul Ehrlich and generally recognized around the turn of the century but nevertheless primarily hypothetical, was attacked by Gruber in 1901 in a paper published jointly with Clemens von Pirquet. Following a reply by Ehrlich, Gruber and Pirquet, whose views had been confirmed experimentally, voiced their opinion once more in 1903. They received recognition and support not only from the medical school in Vienna but also from far beyond the boundaries of their country.


I. Original Works. Gruber’s writings include “Über die als ‘Kommabacillen’ bezeichneten Vibrionen von Koch und Finkler-Prior,” in Wiener medizinische Rochenschrift, 35 , nos. 9–10 (1885), 261–264, 297–301; “Über active und passive Immmunität gegen Cholera und Typhus, sowie über die bacteriologische Diagnose der Cholera und des Typhus,” in Wiener klinische Wochenschrift, 9 nos. 11–12 (1896), 183–186, 204–209; “Theorie der activen und passiven Immunität gegen Cholera, Typhus und verwandte Krank heitsprozesse,” in Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift, 44 no. 9 (1896), 206–207, written with H. Durham; “14. Congress für Innere Medizin, Wiesbaden 1896,” in Verhandlungen des Kongress für innere Medizin (1896), pp. 207–227; “Neue Früchthe der Ehrlich’schen Toxinlehre,” in Wiener klinische Wochenschrift,16 (1903), 791–793; “Wirkungsweise und Ursprung der aktiven Stoffe in den präventiven und antitoxischen Seris,” ibid., 1097–1105; “Geschichte der Entdeckung der spezifischen Agglutination,” in R. Kraus and C. Levaditi, eds., Handbuch der Immunitätsforschung und experimentellen Therapie, I (Jena, 1914), 150–154; and “Dankrede anässlich der Feier seines 70. Geburtstages,” in Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift, 70 (1923), 1038–1039.

II. Secondary Literature. On Gruber or his work, see N. W. Forst, “Max von Gruber,” in Geist und Gestalt, II (Munich, 1959), 242–247; E. Glaser, “Max Gruber,” in Wiener medizinische Wochenschrift, 74 (1927), 1330; R. Grassberger, “Max v. Gruber,” in Wiener klinische Wochenschrift, 40 (1927), 1304–1306; K. B. Lehmann, “Max v. Gruber. 6 Juli 1923),” in Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift, 70 (1923), 879–881; and “Zum Gedächtnis “Max v. Gruber 6 Juli 1853), bis 16 September 1927,” ibid., 74 (1927), 1838–1839; E. Lesky, Die Wiener medizinische Schule im 19. Jahrhundert (Graw-Cologne, 1965), 595–602 and passim; G. Rath, “Max (imilian) Franz Maria Ritter v. Gruber,” in Neue deutsche Biographic, VII (Berlin, 1966), 177–178; and K. Süpfle,”Max v. Gruberzum Gedäachtnis in Deutsche medizinische Wonchenschrift, 53 (1927), 1869–1870.

H. Flamm