Gaffky, Georg Theodor August

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Gaffky, Georg Theodor August

(b. Hannover, Germany, 17 February 1850; d. Hannover, 23 September 1918)

bacteriology, public health.

Gaffky was the son of Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Gaffky, a shipping agent, and Emma Wilhelmine Mathilde Schumacher. After attending a Gymnasium in Hannover, he studied medicine at the University of Berlin. His studies were interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War, however, and he served as a hospital orderly, then returned to the university to take the M.D. in 1873, with a dissertation on the causal relation between chronic lead poisoning and kidney disease. He was an assistant at the Charité, and passed the Staatsexamen in 1875. He then spent several years as a military surgeon posted to various garrisons.

Gaffky’s career took a new turn in 1880 when he and Friedrich Löffler were ordered to assist Robert Koch at the recently founded imperial health office in Berlin. They were the first two of the brilliant group of assistants that Koch was assembling there. Under Koch’s tutelage, Gaffky participated in developing new bacteriological methods and in demonstrating the causes of infectious disease.

From the beginning of his work with Koch, Gaffky was drawn into a variety of researches at the public health laboratory. In 1881 he reported on experimentally produced septicemia in animals. Controverting Naegeli’s view that pathogenic bacteria might eventually arise through the accommodation and indefinite variability of common, previously harmless forms, Gaffky maintained that these diseaseproducing bacteria were specific and derived only from forms like themselves. He took part with Löffler in Koch’s work on steam disinfection, and participated in the investigations on anthrax, cholera, and tuberculosis.

Gaffky’s most important contribution, however, was in the isolation and culture of the bacillus that is the causative agent of typhoid fever. In 1880 Karl Joseph Eberth had seen and described a bacillus which he believed to be the cause of this disease, while Koch had independently observed the organism and photographed masses of the bacilli. But Eberth and Koch had been able to discern the bacillus in no more than half the cases of typhoid fever in which they had made their examinations. It was Gaffky’s hypothesis that this difficulty might be due in part to the culture methods employed, and for the next several years he sought ways to obtain the bacillus with high consistency in pure culture. To do so, it was necessary for him to differentiate between the causative agent of typhoid fever—or Typhus abdominalis, as he called it—and similar bacilli that might be present but represent secondary invaders of the diseased tissues.

The bacilli—typically short rods with rounded ends—could be found in the mesenteric glands, spleen, liver, and kidneys of typhoid victims, sometimes in isolation, but more frequently grouped in masses or threadlike arrangements. Using various techniques, Gaffky grew cultures of the bacillus in solid nutrient gelatin, on the surface of boiled potatoes (where a characteristic film formed), in solidified sheep blood serum (according to Koch’s procedures), in fluid serum, and in bouillon. He identified the bacillus and believed that he had demonstrated its spores. The organism was clearly visible in stained sections, while in fluid media the living bacillus exhibited a distinctive spontaneous movement and there was a characteristic motion of the bacillar threads. Despite this success in culturing the bacillus in different media, Gaffky was never able to cultivate the bacillus in living animals to produce the disease, although he tried repeatedly to achieve this further proof. In vain he experimentally fed infective material to Java monkeys, mice, guinea pigs, and other animals in an attempt to induce typhoid fever in them.

Still, Gaffky could report that he had with the highest probability isolated the etiologic agent of typhoid fever, for his examinations had disclosed the presence of the bacillus in twenty-six of twenty-eight cases of the disease and he published these results of his investigations in the Mittheilungen aus dem K. Gesundheitsamte in 1884.

In 1883–1884 Gaffky was a member of the expedition, sponsored by the German state and led by Koch, that was sent to Egypt and India to investigate the outbreak of cholera there. On the commission’s return, Koch reported the identification of the cholera bacillus and described the ways in which the infection was transmitted; Gaffky was responsible for preparing a detailed documentary report on the journey and its scientific results, published in the Arbeiten aus dem K. Gesundheitsamte in 1887. Its frontispiece showed a scene on the Hooghly River in which people were bathing, washing clothes, and carrying off drinking water, while boats lay nearby; the text was illustrated with photomicrographs of Koch’s cultures of the vibrio and with maps and charts of epidemic statistics.

In 1885 Koch accepted the chair of hygiene at the University of Berlin and Gaffky succeeded him as director of the imperial health office. In 1888 Gaffky was appointed professor of hygiene at the University of Giessen and undertook the direction of the new Hygienic Institute there. While he was at Giessen in 1892 cholera broke out in Hamburg, and Gaffky interrupted his teaching to advise the government in combating the epidemic. He was rector of the university from 1894 to 1895.

Gaffky returned to India—this time as leader of the government commission—in 1897, when bubonic plague was rife in Bombay and other centers. Koch was at this time in South Africa, investigating rinderpest; he later assumed leadership of the plague commission, and Gaffky collaborated in its report.

Gaffky left Giessen in 1904 when Koch suggested that he succeed him as director of the Institut für Infektionskrankheiten. He was an able administrator and under his guidance the institute was enlarged by a division for tropical diseases, a rabies station, and a division for protozoology. He also served as coeditor of the Zeitschrift für Hygiene und Infektionskrankheiten.

In 1913 Gaffky left Berlin for the quieter surroundings of Hannover. He had intended to resume his own studies, but when World War I broke out he was again called to serve the government as adviser on hygiene and public health. He died just before the war ended.

In his career Gaffky followed in Koch’s footsteps, but his own contributions to bacteriology and public health were significant. A genus of the family Micrococcaceae is named Gaffkya after him.


I. Original Works. Gaffky’s writings include “Experimentell erzeugte Septicämie mit Rücksicht auf progressive Virulenz und accomodative Züchtung,” in Mittheilungen aus dem K. Gesundheitsamte, 1 (1881), 80–133; “Ein Beitrag zum Verhalten der Tuberkelbacillen im Sputum,” ibid., 126–130; “Zur Aetiologie des Abdominaltyphus,” ibid., 2 (1884), 372–420, trans. by J. J. Pringle as “On the Etiology of Enteric Fever,” in W. Watson Cheyne, ed., Recent Essays by Various Authors on Bacteria in Relation to Disease (London, 1886). pp, 203–257; “Versuche über Desinfection des Kieloder Bilgeraums von Schiffen,” in Arbeiten aus dem K. Gesundheitsamte, 1 (1886), 199–221, written with R. Koch; “Bericht über die Thätigkeit der zur Erforschung der Cholera im Jahre 1883 nach Egypten und Indien entsandten Kommission,’ ibid., 3 (1887), compiled with Koch; and “Die Verbreitung der orientalischen Beulenpest durch sogenannte ‘Dauerausscheider’ und ‘Bazillenträger,’” in Klinisches Jahrbuch, 19 (1908), 491–496. In addition, he edited the Gesammelte Werke von Robert Koch (Leipzig, 1912) with E. Pfuhl. Olpp and Pagel (see below) provide further bibliographical data.

II. Secondary Literature. See B. Harms, “Georg Gaffky zum Gedächtnis,” in Zentralblatt für Bakteriologie, Parasitenkunde, Infektionskrankheiten und Hygiene, 156 (1950), 1–2; Wilhelm Katner, “Georg Theoder August Gaffky,” in Neue deutsche Biographie, VI (Berlin, 1964), 28; Kirchner, “Georg Gaffky,” in Zeitschrift für ärztliche Fortbildung, 15 (1918), 614–615; H. Kossel, “Georg Gaffky,” in Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift, 65, pt. 2 (1918), 1191–1192; E. Neufeld, “Georg Gaffky,” in Berliner klinische Wochenschrift, 55, pt. 2 (1918), 1062–1063; G. Olpp. Hervorragende Tropenärzte in Wort und Bild (Munich, 1932), pp. 139–141; “Georg Theoder August Gaffky,” in J. Pagel, Biographisches Lexikon hervorragender Ärzte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 1901), pp. 577–578; and R. Pfeiffer, “Georg Gaffky,” in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift, 44, pt. 2 (1918), 1199.

Gloria Robinson