Emil von Behring is remembered for his discovery of tetanus and diphtheria antitoxins, for which he was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Physiology-Medicine in 1901.

Trained as a military physician at Berlin's Friedrich Wilhelms Institute, Behring earned his MD in 1878 after serving for several years in the Prussian military. In 1880, after passing his board examination, he was appointed to an internship at the legendary Charitè hospital in Berlin; shortly thereafter, he took up medical posts in a battalion at Wohlau and with a cavalry regiment in Posen. It was in these latter contexts that Behring began to turn his attention to the use of disinfectants to stop the spread of infectious diseases.

During the 1880s, Behring focused his research on the effects of iodoform, a battlefield antiseptic that was also rather poisonous, concluding that iodoform's disinfectant action was due not to its efficacy as a parasiticide, as had been supposed, but as an antitoxin. He then became preoccupied with antitoxic blood-serum therapy. After a stint at Bonn's pharmacological institute, Behring returned in 1888 to Berlin, where he served briefly at the Academy for Military Medicine before joining Robert Koch in his laboratory at the Institute for Hygiene at the University of Berlin, becoming Koch's full-time assistant in 1889.

Between 1889 and 1895, Behring pioneered advances in serum therapy and developed his theory of antitoxins. Beginning in 1889, he worked in Berlin with Shibasaburo Kitasato to isolate and define the agent known to neutralize anthrax bacilli in white rats. Although their short-term hope was to create a suitable disinfectant against anthrax, they remained alert to the possibility of finding a serum antitoxin. In late 1890, Behring and Kitasato jointly published their first paper on blood-serum therapy. A second publication, signed only by Behring, followed rapidly on the first; in this latter report, Behring considered serum therapy for tetanus and diphtheria. Although his views brought him into conflict with the powerful Virchow, they also attracted important allies such as Paul Ehrlich, who recognized the value of the work. By 1893, Behring had advanced to the rank of full professor and serum therapy experimentation had extended to France, England and the United States. During this period, Behring was publishing at a rapid rate: Both Die aetiologische Behandlung der Infektionskrankheiten and Geschichte der Diphtherie appeared in 1883, followed by two books, in 1894 and 1898, on the treatment of infectious diseases.

In 1894, Behring moved to Halle and then to Marburg, where he founded the Behring Institute. Although he was dogged by controversy over his allegedly poor treatment of his collaborator Ehrlich, many honors were bestowed upon him. In 1895, he was made an officer of the Legion of Honor and granted the Prussian title of Geheimrat (privy councillor); with Roux, he shared the top prizes of the Académie de Médecine and the Académie des Sciences. In 1901, he won the first Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine.

Bibliography

Schadewaldtz, H. "Behring, Emil von." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008, I, 574-578.


Last modified 15 February 2017