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Paul Ehrlich

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Paul Ehrlich

(March 14, 1854 - August 20, 1915)
Born in Prussia
Year of Discovery: 1898

Legend in Immunology Develops Diphtheria Therapy

Ehrlich began his career in a Berlin hospital, employing his knowledge of dyes to differentiate various types of red and white blood cells, including leukemia. He also assisted bacteriologist Robert Koch in his work with tuberculosis. Ehrlich himself later developed tuberculosis, possibly from his lab exposure, and was treated with Koch's tuberculin therapy. But, he was forced to seek a healing climate and spent two years recovering in Egypt. Upon his return to Koch's lab he devoted himself to the study of toxins and antitoxins. Two other researchers in the lab, Behring and Kitasato, had developed antitoxins capable of protecting against tetanus and diphtheria. But, it was Ehrlich who established exacting standards for measuring the content of antitoxins. This critical process allowed for the mass production of a standardized serum.

Diphtheria is a horrible disease, often referred to as the "strangling angel," because of the suffocating membrane  film that can form over the throat and tonsils. It's a highly infectious 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 can be fatal for others. It is especially life-threatening to children. The complications can include toxic damage to the heart muscles (diphtheric myocarditis) and to the peripheral nerves (neuritis). Diphtheria is rare in developed nations, thanks to widespread vaccination programs, but continues to be a serious threat in developing nations.

The work conducted by Ehrlich's colleagues was revolutionary. Whereas weakened strains of bacteria had produced previous vaccines, Behring and Kitasato used the serum of immunized animals to produce their antitoxins. But, the process was slow and difficult. It took many weeks of painstaking work to produce the first dose used on Christmas Day 1891. If the serum was going to be of widespread value, a better means of production had to be found. Ehrlich took on the task. He first established strict methods to measure the content of the antitoxins - a methodology that would be used in all future standardizations of sera. He then turned his attention to producing a pharmaceutical grade serum in large quantities. He knew mice wouldn't work. Nor would rabbits or guinea pigs. So, thinking big, he began to use horses to produce the serum. His process was the turning point in moving from production of small quantities to mass production. He and his fellow scientists teamed with Hoechst, the German pharmaceutical company, to make the first commercially available antitoxin.

Ehrlich was a tireless worker and, by all accounts, a kind and modest man. Surprisingly, Tthough he suffered a bout of tuberculosis early in his career, he seemed to have little concern about the impact of smoking on his already beleaguered lungs. He was often seen with a box of cigars tucked tightly under his arm - and he smoked constantly, averaging 25 of the stout cigars each day.



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
Similar Scientists
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


Links to More About the Scientist & the Science

Nobelprize.org biography:

whonamedit.com biography:

Pharmaceutical Achievers article on Ehrlich's pursuit of "Magic Bullets" therapies:

Wikipedia entry:

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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
Emil von Behring
Originally intent on the priesthood, von Behring developed therapies against diphtheria and tetanus.
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



Similar Scientists

Explore these other scientists who have something significant in common with this science hero.
Science Heroes of the 19th Century

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Robert Koch

Koch was an ingenious innovator

Isolated the bacterium that causes tuberculosis

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Paul Ehrlich

Developed the commercial serum therapy against diphtheria

Ehrlich established exacting standards for measuring the content of antitoxins. This critical process allowed for the mass production of standardized serums against diphtheria and tetanus.

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Edward Jenner

Did earliest work on the smallpox vaccine

Jenner's early efforts proved that cowpox virus (vaccinia) could provide immunity to the smallpox virus. This discovery gave birth to the concept of vaccination.

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Joseph Lister

Lister ushered in the era of sterile surgical practices

Lister, the "Father of Modern Surgery," developed the antiseptic surgical technique, ushering in the era of sterile surgical practices.

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Louis Pasteur

Pasteur was responsible for several major scientific discoveries

Pasteur was a multi-faceted scientific genius who proved germ theory, and was the founder of vaccination, microbiology, and pasteurization.

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John Snow

developed the first method of mapping the spread of epidemics

Snow, widely known as the "Father of Epidemiology," developed the first method of mapping the spread of epidemics. He also was the first to calculate precise doses of anesthesia.

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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

Baumler, Ernest. Paul Ehrlich: Scientist for Life. Holmes & Meier Pub., 1985.

Marquardt, Martha. Paul Ehrlich; (The Life of science library). Schuman, 1951.


Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science