Schaudinn, Fritz Richard

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(b. Röseningken, Germany, 19 September 1871; d. Hamburg, Germany, 22 June 1906)

zoology, medicine.

Schaudinn’s brief but highly successful career in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century revealed the growing importance of protozoology for an understanding of various contemporary medical problems. His research on the etiologic agents of malaria and amebiasis was precise and accurate. The culmination of Schaudinn’s investigations was the discovery of the microorganism responsible for venereal syphilis, first named Spirochaeta pallida, later Treponema pallidum or Schaudinn’s bacillus. This important accomplishment greatly facilitated the subsequent development of an effective method of treating the disease.

The only son of an old East Prussian family of farmers, Schaudinn demonstrated in early childhood an interest in the natural world around him by systematically collecting plants, insects, and small animals. During his education in the cities of Insterburg (now Chernvakhovsk, U.S.S.R.) and Gumbinnen (now Gusev, U.S.S.R.), he showed considerable affection for both physics and chemistry. Schaudinn was a voracious reader with broad interests, especially in German philology, which led him to matriculate in philosophy at the University of Berlin in 1890. Soon he shifted his attention to the natural sciences, especially zoology; and under the direction of Schulze, he concentrated on the study of protozoa.

In 1894, after receiving a doctorate in the natural sciences from the university (he wrote a dissertation on a new genus of Foraminifera), Schaudinn participated in a highly successful expedition to Bergen, Norway, to study Arctic fauna. Upon his return he was appointed assistant at the Zoological Institute of the University of Berlin, where he intensified his protozoological studies. During the next four years, he published a number of papers dealing with the reproductive cycles of lower organisms such as the Coccidia and Haemosporidia.

In 1898 Schaudinn successfully defended his Habilitationsschrift, which was concerned with the importance of protozoological research on the cell theory, and he became a privatdozent at the University of Berlin. In the same year he made another expedition to the Arctic. Unlike France, which had the Pasteur Institute, and Italy, with a Malaria Society, the zoologists, pathologists, and physicians of Germany worked in relative isolation from one another. Schaudinn vigorously promoted contacts between his discipline and medicine. He also stressed the importance of certain protozoa both as parasites of the human organism and as etiologic agents for certain diseases.

As a result of this interest, in 1901 Schaudinn was appointed director of a German’Austrian zoological station located in the town of Rovigno (now Rovinj, Yugoslavia) on the Dalmatian coast. The assignment was the most productive period in Schaudinn’s life. He conducted several field studies on malaria in the nearby village of San Michele di Leme, observing the entrance of the sporozoite into the red blood cell. Moreover, Schaudinn clearly revealed the amoebic nature of tropical dysentery. His distinction between the harmless Entamoeba coli and the disease’producing Entamoeba histolytica was achieved by experimental self’infection with these organisms. Other studies carried out on the trypanosomes and Coccidia led in 1903 to Schaudinn’s receiving the Tiedemann Award, although he had published only short abstracts on his findings. In the same year he was joined at Rovigno by Prowazek.

In 1904 Schaudinn was called to Berlin in order to assume the direction of the newly established Institute for Protozoology at the Imperial Ministry of Health. His first assignment was a study of the hookworm disease that affected German miners, and he was one of the first to confirm that the larvae of the parasite gained entrance to the body by actively penetrating the skin of the feet or legs.

During the spring of 1905, Schaudinn was given the task of verifying some experimental work on syphilis carried out by John Siegel under the direction of his former mentor Schulze. The conclusions of this rather dubious research pointed toward a common etiologic agent (cytorrhyctes luis) for scarlet fever, smallpox, hoof’and’mouth disease, and syphilis. The joint clinical and parasitological investigation of syphilis was conducted with the help of the dermatology clinic at the Charité Hospital in Berlin. The dermatologist Erich Hoffmann became Schaudinn’s clinical consultant and the bacteriologist Fred Neufeld, his assistant.

Soon thereafter, Schaudinn detected a pale’looking spiral’shaped rod among a myriad of other microorganisms contained in a fresh microscopical preparation derived from the fluid of an eroded syphilitic papule. Schaudinn was excited about his finding, although he believed that the organism, named Spirochaeta pallida, was probably a saprophyte. Other types of spirochetes were found in subsequent preparations of nonsyphilitic lesions such as condylomas.

Thus, the first report of Schaudinn and Hoffmann dated 10 March 1905 merely pointed out the existence of Spirochaeta pallida in syphilitic lesions without ascribing to it any importance as a possible causal factor for the disease in question. Sometime later. Schaudinn was able to differentiate between the coarse and fine spirochetes and observe the Spirochaeta pallida in Giemsa’stained microscopical preparations obtained from syphilitic lymph nodes. These more significant findings, reported 17 May 1905 to the Berlin Medical Society, more clearly implicated the microorganism as the etiologic agent of syphilis, since it had been observed in both primary and secondary syphilitic lesions.

Schaudinn remained extremely cautious and, although he was confident of the causal relationship between the Spirochaeta pallida and syphilis, he was unconvincing in his presentation of his findings to the Berlin Medical Society on 17 and 25 May. He faced strong opposition from Schulze’s followers, and the presiding officer’s closing remarks at the meeting reflected the deep skepticism with which Schaudinn’s discovery was greeted. The distinguished surgeon Ernst von Bergmann declared the session adjourned “until another agent responsible for syphilis engages our interest”.

Soon various investigators in other countries were able to verify the repeated and exclusive presence of the Spirochaeta pallida in syphilitic lesions, but no pure cultures of the microorganism could be obtained immediately. Schaudinn received a series of offers to work and teach abroad, notably, but he finally took a leave of absence from his post with the Ministry of Health in order to work in the new protozoology laboratory of the Research Institute for Naval and Tropical Diseases at Hamburg.

The post was confirmed by the senate of Hamburg in early 1906, but Schaudinn’s career at the new location was short-lived. From 1904 onward he had suffered from furunculosis, which caused an anal fistula. He died of a rectal abscess and general sepsis shortly after returning from the International Medical Congress in Portugal. Among the honors bestowed upon him were corresponding memberships in the Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft (1903), the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg (1905), and the Berlin Society of Internal Medicine (1906).


I. Original Works. Schaudinn’s most important articles, in a number of journals, have been collected in Fritz Schaudinns Arbeiten (Hamburg-Leipzig, 1911), published under the auspices of the Hamburgische Wis’̀nschaftliche Stiftung: with biographical sketch by S. von Prowazek and with a list of all the material that Schaudinn published in his short career. Schaudinn’s first paper on the discovery of Spirochaeta pallida was dated April 1905 and appeared as “Vorläufiger Bericht über das Vorkommen von Spirochaeten in syphilitischen Krankheitsprodukten und bei Papillomen”, in Arbeiten an das K. Gesundheitsamte, 22 , no. 2 (1905), 527–534.

The article was shortly thereafter published with the same title in book form (Berlin, 1905). A second paper, also co’authored by Erich Hoffman, reported the findings of Spirochaeta pallida in syphilitic lymph nodes: “Ueber Spirochaetenbefunde im Lymphdrüsensaft Syphilitischer,” in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift. 31 , no. 18 (1905), 711–714. See also Schaudinn’s report to the Berlin Medical Society, “Ueber Spirochaeta pallida bei Syphilis und die Unterschiede dieser Form gegenüber anderer Arten dieser Gattung,” in Berliner klinische Wochenschrift. 42 . no. 22 (29 May 1905), 673–675: no. 23 (5 June 1905), 726.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biographical account is Christel Kuhn, Aus dem Leben Fritz Richard Schaudinns (Stuttgart. 1949). Although brief, the work is based on extensive archival material and personal interviews with Schaudinn’s widow and sister; it contains a small bibliography of secondary sources on Schaudinn and his work.

Shorter biographical sketches are in two obituaries; W. Loewenthal, in Medizinische Klinik, 2 , no. 26 (1906), 693–694; and S. von Prowazek, in Wiener klinische Wochenschrift. 19 (1906), 880–882. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Schaudinn’s discovery. the personal recollections of one of his assistants appeared: F. Neufeld, “Zum 25 jährigen Gedenktage der Entdekkung des Syphilisrregers,” in Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift. 56 (1930), 710–712. Similar source material is in Erich Hoffmann, Vorträge und Urkunden zur 25 jährigen Wiederkehr der Entdeckung des Syphiliserregers (Berlin, 1930), and in A. Schuberg and H. Schlossberger, “Zum 25 Jahrestag der Entdeckung der Spirochaeta Pallida,” in Klinische Wochenschrift, 9 (1930), 582–586.

See also O. T. Schultz, “Fritz Schaudinn, a Review of His Work,” in Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, 19 (1908), 169–173: J. H. Stokes, “Schaudinn, a Biographical Appreciation,” in Science, 74 (1931), 502–506; and a short biographical sketch “Fritz Richard Schaudinn (1871–1906),” John H. Talbott, ed., A Biographical History of Medicine (New York, 1970), 796–798.

Guenter B. Risse

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Schaudinn, Fritz Richard

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