Behring, Emil von

Emil von Behring (1854-1917) made major contributions to the understanding of the body's immune (biological defense) system, discovered the first successful treatment for tetanus (a dangerous infectious disease caused by bacteria that enters through a wound or opening in the skin), and came to be known as the "Children's Savior" for his success in conquering diphtheria. Behring was born in Hansdorf, Germany, into a family of 12 children. He studied at the University of Berlin, earning his medical degree in 1880. He served several years as a surgeon in the Prussian Army Medical Corps. It was then that he became interested in infection and how substances in the blood fight disease.

In 1889, Behring went to the University of Berlin to work in the laboratory of Heinrich Koch (1843-1910; German bacteriologist). Behring made some of his most important discoveries while working there with Japanese bacteriologist Shibasaburo Kitasato (1852-1931; first president of the Japanese Medical Association). The two men studied how the blood produces substances that neutralize toxins (invading organisms). Behring called these substances antitoxins (antibodies). Antitoxins or antibodies are the body's soldiers in the fight against a disease-causing organism.

Blood Serum Therapy

One of the largest killers of young children, the bacterial disease diphtheria swept through Western Europe in the late 1800s. It would create tissues in the throat that tended to block the air way, causing the victim to choke to death. Another frequent epidemic of this period was tetanus, also known as "lockjaw". This disease causes severe muscle spasms and is carried by toxins produced by bacteria that live in soil. Behring and Kitasato found that when animals were injected with small amounts of diphtheria toxins, their blood produced antitoxins which would neutralize the invading organisms. These immunized animals would also remain resistant to the disease for long periods of time, and the antitoxin serum extracted (taken) from their blood could be used to treat other animals. Behring and Kitasato called this technique blood serum therapy, and announced their discovery in 1890. Shortly afterward, Behring published another paper in which he applied the same ideas to diphtheria.

Behring became a professor at the University of Halle (Germany) in 1894, and shortly after, at the University of Marburg (Germany). There he established what is known as the Behring Institute and continued one of his other research interests, the fight against tuberculosis. Although Behring was unable to discover a tuberculosis vaccine, he proposed the theory that the disease was spread by infants drinking milk contaminated by tuberculosis bacilli and devised methods to disinfect the milk. He also continued to search for improved treatments for diphtheria. In 1913 Behring introduced a new toxin-antitoxin preparation that gave longer-lasting immunity to the disease.

Behring's vaccines helped to save the lives of millions of injured soldiers in World War I (1914-1918), as well as countless others threatened by tetanus and diphtheria. For his work, Behring received the first Nobel Prize for medicine in 1901. He died in Marburg in 1917.

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