Johannes Andreas Grib Fibiger
Johannes Andreas Grib Fibiger
Danish Physician, Pathologist and Bacteriologist
Johannes Andreas Grib Fibiger was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the etiology of cancer and for his discovery of a parasite that he claimed was the cause of cancer, the Spiroptera carcinoma. Unfortunately, the great hope that Fibiger's research on cancer would solve the cancer puzzle proved to be unfounded.
Fibiger was born in Silkeborg, Denmark. His father, C. E. A. Fibiger, was a local medical practitioner and his mother, Elfride Muller, was a writer. His father's career stimulated Fibiger's interest in medicine, although Dr. Fibiger died when his son was very young. Fibiger became interested in bacteriology as an undergraduate at the University of Copenhagen. He was awarded his bachelor's degree in 1883 and his M.D. in 1890. After a period of working in hospitals and studying under Robert Koch (1843-1910) and Emil von Behring (1854-1917) in Germany, he returned to Copenhagen. From 1891-1894 he was assistant to Carl Julius Salomonsen in the Department of Bacteriology at Copenhagen University. Fibiger served as an army reserve doctor at the Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Copenhagen from 1894-1897, while completing his doctoral research on the bacteriology of diphtheria. In 1895 he received his doctorate from the University of Copenhagen. He returned to Germany for six months to work at the pathological institute of Johannes Orth. In 1897 Fibiger was appointed dissection assistant at the University of Copenhagen's Institute of Pathological Anatomy. He also served as principal of the Laboratory of Clinical Bacteriology of the Army from 1890-1905. In 1905 he became director of the Central Laboratory of the Army and a consultant physician to the Army Medical Service.
In 1900 Fibiger initiated a new research project, studying tuberculosis. He was particularly interested in the relationship between human and bovine tuberculosis. Although he was also interested in cancer, he had no experimental model that could be used to solve the problem of the origins of the cancer cell. Transferring cancerous tissue from one animal to another was possible, but initiating cancer in a healthy animal was not. Influenced by the success of bacteriology in finding the causes of many diseases, Fibiger hoped that similar methods would provide insights into the genesis of cancer.
In 1907, while dissecting three rats that had been injected with tubercle bacilli, Fibiger found that these animals all had stomach cancers. Microscopic examination of the tumorous tissue revealed traces of eggs and worms. Intrigued by these observations, Fibiger abandoned his research on tuberculosis and focused on cancer. Based on reports that a tiny worm known as a nematode infested rats and cockroaches, Fibiger attempted to collect rats that subsisted largely on roaches. He found that the rats and roaches at a Copenhagen sugar refinery were infested by nematodes. After isolating the parasitic nematode in question and determining that it was a new species, he passed it repeatedly from infested rats to cockroaches and then to healthy rats. Fibiger reported that these rats eventually developed tumors of the stomach. In 1913 Fibiger reported his discovery to the Royal Danish Academy of Science. He called the nematode Spiroptera neoplastica. According to Fibiger, his work proved that cancers were caused by chronic irritation from a foreign agent or toxin. By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he realized that his parasites probably were not the key to the etiology of cancer. Other researchers had little or no success in duplicating his results in experimental animals. Later, researchers suggested that the tumors observed in his experimental animals might have been caused by a virus carried by the parasite and that Fibiger's Spiroptera neoplastica had no relationship to human cancer at all. Eventually, Fibiger himself suggested that some external agents might generate cancer in genetically susceptible individuals. Fibiger died of a heart attack shortly after he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
LOIS N. MAGNER