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(March 15, 1854 - March 31, 1917)
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.
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The Science Behind the Discovery
Satter, Heinrich. Emil Von Behring Emil Von Behrings Endtdeckungen (Discoveries). (German language) Inter Nationers-Bad Godesberg, 1967.
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