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Robert Koch (1843-1910)

One of the founders of bacteriology

Discoverer of the causes of anthrax,
cholera and tuberculosis

Also see: English-German Medical Glossary

Robert Koch
Robert Koch
Foto: Nobelprize.org

In 1876 Robert Koch proved that anthrax (Milzbrand) was caused by a specific bacterium. The methods and technical procedures he developed and used in the 1870s to solve a long-time medical mystery remain essentially unchanged today. Koch's postulates (Kochsche Postulate, refined in 1884) are still the basic procedures used by modern epidemiologists and medical researchers: (1) Identify a specific organism, (2) obtain a pure culture of that organism, (3) reproduce the disease in experimental animals using the pure culture, and (4) recover the organism from the infected animals. Koch published his anthrax results in 1877.

At a time when people still thought most diseases were caused by poisonous “bad air” (miasmas, Miasmen), Koch would later go on to discover the pathogens (Erreger) of other infectious diseases, including cholera, sleeping sickness and tuberculosis. From Germany he traveled to far corners of the world in his search for the etiology of diseases: to Egypt for cholera, to India for plague, to South Africa for Rinderpest and to Uganda for sleeping sickness.

Robert Koch was born in Clausthal, in the Harz region of Germany on Dec. 11, 1843. He grew up there as one of eleven children of Hermann and Mathilde Koch. At the University of Göttingen he studied medicine under the tutelage of noted professors such as the pathologist Jakob Henle. In 1867, after completing his medical studies, Koch married hometown girl Emmy Adolfine Fraatz. Koch first set up practice in Hamburg, later moving to Wollstein in the province of Posen (now in Poland). In his spare time he conducted the exhaustive research that would later make him famous. In 1876 he made his important discovery of the bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacterium.

Anthrax - Milzbrand
Also called "splenic fever" (hence the German term Milzbrand), anthrax is one of the oldest recorded diseases of animals, particularly grazing animals such as sheep and cattle. It is mentioned in the Bible and by Homer, Virgil and Hippocrates. It can also affect humans, usually as the result of coming into contact with infected animal hides, fur, leather or contaminated soil. The first effective vaccine developed by Louis Pasteur was for anthrax in 1881. The anthrax bacterium had first been observed in 1849 and 1863, but Koch was the first to identify it as the causative agent for anthrax and to isolate the bacillus anthracis microorganism in a pure culture.
Koch was later appointed to positions with the imperial health office (das Kaiserliche Gesundheitsamt, 1880) and the university medical school in Berlin (1885). Among the many noted assistants on Koch's medical team in Berlin was Paul Ehrlich, who later gained fame as the discoverer of a treatment for syphilis. While in Berlin and during his travels, Koch discovered the causes of tuberculosis (1882) and cholera (1883). Koch's development of tuberculin in 1890 never proved to be a cure for tuberculosis, but did aid in the diagnosis of disease. From 1891 to 1904 Koch was the head of the Institute for Infectious Diseases (das Institut für Infektionskrankheiten) in Berlin, which drew students from all over the world to study the new science of bacteriology. Today that Institute, still headquartered in Berlin-Wedding, is known as the Robert-Koch-Institut (RKI). The RKI today serves as Germany's equivalent of the US Center for Disease Prevention and Control. In 1905 Robert Koch was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on tuberculosis. He died of heart failure at the age of 66 in Baden-Baden on May 27, 1910. His ashes now rest in an urn in the west wing of the Robert-Koch-Institut in Berlin.

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