Emil Adolphe von Behring

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Emil Adolphe von Behring


Prussian Surgeon and Bacteriologist

Trained as a military surgeon, Emil von Behring later became interested in microbiology and received a position in the Berlin laboratory of Robert Koch (1843-1910). His work with Shibasaburo Kitasato (1852-1931) on diphtheria showed the efficacy of blood serum as a treatment. He is perhaps best known for his dramatic Christmas night rescue of a child dying of diphtheria by giving him serum antitoxin, thus proving its clinical value.

Behring was born in Hansdorf, Deutsch-Eylau, Prussia (today part of Poland) in 1854, one of thirteen children. Financially unable to attend the university there, Behring enrolled instead in the Army Medical College in Berlin, where he received his degree in 1878. He was then obliged to serve in the military and was sent to Poland to work. While there, he became interested in septic diseases. He began several years of research on iodoform, a crystalline compound of iodine. He published a study in 1882, asserting that while iodoform did not kill infectious microbes, it did have possibilities for neutralizing their poisons or toxins. As the German government became aware of Behring's studies and interests, they supported his further training in bacterial research, sending him first to work with C. Binz in Bonn, then in 1888 to the Institute of Hygiene, where he worked with the renowned Dr. Robert Koch. After several years there Behring moved with Koch to the Institute for Infectious Diseases. In 1894 he became Professor of Hygiene at the University of Halle, and the next year he was appointed Director of the Hygenic Institute at Marburg. In 1896 Behring married Else Spinola, with whom he had seven children. He died in Marburg on March 31, 1917.

Behring's work in Berlin under Robert Koch centered on serum antitoxins for diphtheria, tetanus, and tuberculosis. Koch, along with French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), had come to international attention for his meticulous development of the methods and means for studying, isolating and growing the microbes that caused infectious diseases. In 1877 Koch had found the cause of anthrax, a deadly disease of cattle and sheep. This was followed by his identification of the germs causing tuberculosis (1882) and cholera (1883). Behring began his work on diphtheria, picking up on the discovery already made by Émile Roux (1853-1933) and Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943) of the Pasteur Institute that the diphtheria bacillus caused illness and death not in and of itself, but rather by means of a toxin that it emitted. Working with Japanese scientist Shibasaburo Kitasato, Behring began experimenting on guinea pigs in an attempt to find a chemical that might be injected into infected animals that would kill off the disease-killing bacilli without harming the animal. In the course of these experiments, Behring noticed several animals that recovered from a diphtheria infection. Working with these animals, he found them immune to the disease—injections of large doses of the bacillus did not harm them. This led to the discovery that their blood serum, the clearish liquid that will separate out from blood when it is left to stand, did not kill the bacilli themselves but did neutralize their toxin. Behring named this substance antitoxin. Behring and Kitasato published their results in 1890.

Behring continued his studies of antitoxin, moving from guinea pigs to larger animals including goats and sheep. Eventually, he found that horses could be made immune to the disease, thereby producing large quantities of antitoxin. Experiments showed that this antitoxin protected animals from diphtheria, but for only a few weeks, making it impractical to use. Behring then turned his thoughts from using the antitoxin as a preventive measure to using it as a curative one. The first clinical trial was performed, very dramatically, on Christmas night in 1891. A dose of antitoxin was given to a child in a Berlin clinic as a last-ditch effort to save him. It was a success. After this, Behring devoted his time to working out a reliable means of measuring and producing exact strengths of antitoxin, a feat that was finally accomplished with the assistance of Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915).

Behring devoted the rest of his life to refining the use of antitoxin. He spent several years studying tuberculosis as well as diphtheria. In 1914 he founded a laboratory for the production of sera and vaccines, a capital venture that provided for his financial well being. He received numerous awards and honors in his lifetime, including honorary membership in numerous National Societies. He was awarded the title of Professor in 1893, given a noble title in 1901, and awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1901.