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Von Behring

posted Jan 1, 2015, 6:49 PM by Ranmini Perera   [ updated Feb 11, 2015, 5:24 PM by Upali Salpadoru ]
"It was a struggle between life and death". The baby could neither eat nor drink…, her heart was racing. There was vomiting and a slight temperature. A grayish membrane over the throat and tonsils was thickening. The lymph glands on both sides of the neck were swollen. The diagnosis: - DIPTHERIA; It was the year 1891, There was no proper cure. Emil von Behrin was determined to investigate.


Fig.1 Emil von Behring.

This was a typical patient the doctors would have had to treat. Children were dying at the rate of 50.000 per year, in Germany alone. The cause was a poison secreted by a bacterium, named Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which had entered the throat of the victim. These bacteria are spread in droplets of moisture coughed into the air. They then multiply in the mouth or throat of the patient. Symptoms of the disease appear 1 to 5 days after contamination.

The human body has a very effective defense system against invaders such as bacteria. White blood cells called ‘phagocytes’, are capable of devouring bacteria, on the surface of bacteria, there are chemical substances called ‘antigens’.  Another kind of white cells called lymphocytes produce some proteins called ‘anti bodies’ which can attach to antigens either making the toxins harmless or by making it easier for the phagocytes to capture them. The anti bodies produced for one kind of bacterium may not be effective against another. So when a germ enters the body, the blood has to learn very quickly how to make the proper antibodies to attack the new enemy. If the process delays, the bacteria will beat the defense system.

The presence of antibodies will provide immunity for a particular disease. This is why you are not liable to get chicken pox if you have had it once. This is called natural immunity. The medical treatment lies in inducing the lymphocytes to make the proper antigens preferably prior to the germs fortify themselves. Any material injected or swallowed to induce immunity is called a vaccine. In inoculation or vaccination a weakened form of the bacteria is introduced into the body. This will provide the extra time necessary to produce the proper antigen and be ready to attack the invading bacilli.

               Fig. 2.Emil Von Behring (right) together with his colleagues Robert Koch's                                 laboratory in Berlin.

Emil Von Behring in 1890, together with his university friend Erich Wernicke, developed the first effective ‘therapeutic serum’ against diphtheria. At the same time, together with Shibasaburo Kitasato  developed an effective therapeutic serum against tetanus. Serum is blood plasma devoid of the clotting substance called fibrinogen. A therapeutic serum may contain toxins, toxoids (anti toxins) and even weakened live bacteria.

They cultured live bacilli of the two diseases separately and weakened them with dis-infectants such as iodoform.  Then they injected them into live animals and extracted the serum from them. This was the ‘theraupeutic serum’ which possessed the magical properties. When this fluid was injected into animals suffering from the disease they got cured; when injected into healthy animals they became immune to diphtheria and tetanus. They published these results in 1890.


Fig.3. An engraving showing how the medicinal serum was obtained from horses.

Emil’s father was a village school teacher. He had four children by the first marriage and after the birth of Emil had another eight children. Emil Behring was born on March 15, 1854 in Prussia. Being a clever boy he got the assistance from the village minister to enter the high school of the village. His early ambition to be a minister vanished when he started the medical studies at the University of Berlin He obtained a scholarship and studied at the Academy for Military Doctors. He earned his medical degree there and served as a military doctor in various garrisons. Getting elevated as a captain of the medical corps, he became an assistant to Robert Koch at the Hygiene Institute of Berlin.

Forty two year old Emil.Von Behring married 20 year old Else Spinola, The daughter of a Director of the University Medical Clinic and sired six sons. Behring was a family man, though rather patriarchal, in the circle of his family he felt content, although his scientific work did not leave much time for his wife and children.

Fig. 4. Forty two year old Emil Behring with his twenty year old bride.

In 1893 the title of Professor was conferred upon him, and two years later he became an officer of the French Legion of Honour At the end of 1914, as a result of Behring's constructive assistance, the injection of serum was established as preventing disease. Since April 1915, the numbers of sick fell dramatically. Behring was declared "Saviour of the German Soldiers" and was awarded the Prussian Iron Cross medal. Numerous distinctions followed... In 1901, the year of his Nobel Prize, he was raised to the nobility, and in 1903 he was elected to the Privy Council with the title of Excellency. Further honours followed from many countries, such as Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Roumania and France.

“Behring lived entirely for his idea of revolutionizing medicine through serum therapy. This idea hung above him and motivated him, in his own words, "like a demon." His enormous concentration on his work often drove him to physical illnesses, as well as to deep depressions, which forced him to take time off work for a sanatorium stay from 1907 through 1910”.   

Although Emil von Behring died at Marburg on March 31, 1917, the serum therapy he developed may continue as long as the babies are born.

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