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Behring, Emil

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Emil von Behring

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Emil Adolf von Behring

(March 15, 1854 - March 31, 1917)
Born in Germany
Year of Discovery: 1901

Diptheria and Tetanus Got Their First Treatment Thanks to this Scientist!

Sometimes the forces of nature, including untreatable diseases, overwhelm mankind. At other times, it is the sheer force of dedicated men who rise to the challenge and overcome. Such was the case of Emil Behring in his fight against diphtheria. Behring's native Germany was being ravaged by diphtheria in the 1880s, with an estimated 50,000 children dying from the horrible disease each year. Fate, or perhaps the hand of God, had earlier intervened to direct Behring to pursue a career in medicine. Although his father had sent him to school to prepare for the priesthood, a teacher recognized Behring's penchant for medicine. He arranged for Behring to attend the Army Medical College, where he received a free medical education, in exchange for his future military service. It was this underpinning of education and discipline that equipped Behring to challenge diphtheria. 

Diphtheria is a horrible disease, often referred to as the “strangling angel,” because of the suffocating membrane that can form over the throat and tonsils. It’s a highly contagious disease, typically spread from person to person through coughing or sneezing. Initial symptoms appear 2 to 5 days after infection and may include a sore throat, swollen glands, hoarseness, difficulty breathing, and fever. Some people may suffer only a mild reaction, but diphtheria may be fatal for others. It is especially life-threatening to children. The complications include damage to the heart muscles and to the nerves. Diphtheria is rare in developed nations, thanks to widespread vaccination programs, but continues to be a serious threat in developing nations.

Behring routinely began his days at 4 a.m., working methodically and maintaining scrupulous notes. It was while experimenting with sterilization that he discovered rat serum was able to kill the anthrax bacteria. This became the foundation for his development of a serum therapy with which to treat diphtheria. Behring began direct experiments on diphtheria using guinea pigs. He inoculated guinea pigs with a weakened diphtheria virus and found that some survived. He then showed that miniscule amounts of the diphtheria virus were able to produce immunity in the guinea pigs. The critical breakthrough came when he injected the serum from an immunized guinea pig into a second guinea pig – the second guinea pig also became immune! This process, known as serum therapy, set the stage for mounting a winning fight against diphtheria. Behring refined the blood serum, using guinea pigs, rabbits and sheep. On Christmas Day 1891, with just enough serum for a single dose, he administered the revolutionary serum to a deathly ill little girl in a Berlin hospital. The result was spectacular!  Behring’s serum therapy worked and it successfully launched a fight against diphtheria that would turn it into a rare occurrence in the modern age.

Behring’s early morning hours and tireless efforts required adequate fuel to maintain his stamina – this may be the reason he routinely ate a large steak for breakfast. He continued to work with exceptional discipline throughout his life. Behring dedicated much of his later life to pursuing a cure for tuberculosis, a disease he himself contracted at the age of 50. Sadly, this was a fight Behring would not win, and he died of the disease just after his 63rd birthday.

Introduction by Tim Anderson



Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Key Contributors
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


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Medical History
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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research


Key Contributors

The Team
Explore other scientists who furthered this lifesaving advance.
Lifesavers: Diphtheria and Tetanus Vaccine
Paul Ehrlich
A legend in immunology - Ehrlich developed diphtheria therapy.
Christian Zoeller
Zoeller used formaldehyde to develop his lifesaving tetanus vaccine.
Shibasaburo Kitasato
"On loan to Germany," developed first effective therapies against diphtheria and tetanus.
Gaston Ramon
His ingenious techniques allowed diphtheria and tetanus vaccines to be used safely worldwide.

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist


Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

Personal Information

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist

Satter, Heinrich. Emil Von Behring Emil Von Behrings Endtdeckungen (Discoveries). (German language) Inter Nationers-Bad Godesberg, 1967.


Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science