Max Josef von Pettenkofer, chemist and founder of the field of "experimental hygiene," studied natural sciences at the University of Munich. After a stint as assistant to his uncle, an apothecary and court pharmacist to Ludwig I of Bavaria, Pettenkofer completed a doctoral dissertation on a plant, native to Mexico and Colombia, the sap of which was reputed to cure snakebite, rabies, and cholera. His research on this topic included uncomfortable self-experimentation with a resin extracted from the leaves of this plant. He then undertook additional studies in medical chemistry, establishing experimental proof of diet's effect upon urinary composition, developing a test for the presence of bile, and discovering a new amino acid, creatinine, in human urine.

In 1853, Pettenkofer was called to a position as professor of chemistry at Munich, followed by a promotion to ordinary professor of hygiene and his eventual election to the post of university rector. In 1865, Pettenkofer was among the founders of the Zeitschrift für Biologie, which he co-edited for eighteen years and which published many of his reports. In 1883, he took over the editorship of the Archiv für Hygiene, which he edited for the next decade. An indefatigable promoter of the new science of hygiene, Pettenkofer established chairs for the science at the universities of Würzburg and Erlangen. Thanks to his advocacy, state medical exams were required to include questions related to hygiene. Pettenkofer also played a key role in the appointment of the prominent chemist Justus von Liebig to the chair of chemistry at Munich in 1852.

A cholera specialist, Pettenkofer studied ten outbreaks of cholera in Bavaria before concluding that moist, porous and polluted soils were a vector for the disease. According to his "groundwater theory" of disease, pathogens fermented under particular soil conditions released disease-causing miasmas. Surveying a cholera outbreak in Munich, Pettenkofer excluded drinking water from the set of possible causes of the outbreak, a conclusion that was later generalized to typhoid fever. The relationship of local soils and water tables to outbreaks of infectious disease preoccupied Pettenkofer for many years. Between 1867 and 1883, he successfully fought to sanitize Munich's drinking water supply, which became one of the cleanest in Europe; and he advocated for a sewer system to eliminate unsanitary disposal of household and human waste in the city.

Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Pettenkofer published more than twenty monographs and more than two hundred scientific articles. Between 1889-1899, he served as president of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. To celebrate his seventieth birthday, the cities of Munich and Leipzig jointly founded the Pettenkofer Foundation to recognize novel accomplishments in hygiene. The citizens of Munich awarded him two gold medals for his service to the city. In 1897 the Royal Institute of Public Health awarded him the Harben Medal. He received numerous honorary doctorates and memberships in foreign medical and hygienic associations as well as a title of nobility.


Dolman, Claude. "Pettenkofer, Max Josef von." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 2008, X, 556-563.

Last modified 28 January 2017