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Koch, Robert

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Robert Koch

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Robert Koch
(December 11, 1843 - May 27, 1910)
Born in Germany
Year of Discovery: 1882

Scientist's Discovery of Bacterium Saves Over 7 Million Lives

Robert Koch's father was a mining engineer in the Upper Harz Mountains in northern Germany, and Koch inherited his intellect and precision. Showing early in life he would be a force to be reckoned with, Koch proudly announced to his parents he had taught himself to read - at the age of five with the aid of the newspapers the adults read and then discarded. This exacting attention to detail served him well throughout his career. He had superior technical skills, was an ingenious innovator, and he and his students created many of the critical methods required for studying bacteria in the laboratory. He and his team discovered the microorganisms that cause several diseases, including anthrax, , diphtheria, and cholera. But, he is best known for isolating the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Koch's discovery was the critical first step in developing treatments and immunizations against tuberculosis, an advance credited with saving over 7 million lives.

Tuberculosis is a highly infectious airborne disease. It's spread from person to person through sneezing, coughing, spitting, or other direct contact with an infected person's expelled bacteria. The initial infection takes place in the lungs, often in the form of pneumonia. As tuberculosis progresses, the patient will exhibit multiple symptoms, including generalized weakness, fever, weight loss, and night sweats. The lungs worsen as well, and the patient has increasing chest pain, shortness of breath, and coughing up of blood. Early on the disease was known as "consumption," because the body seemed to be consumed from within. Tuberculosis was a devastating disease in the mid-19th century, responsible for one in seven deaths, and it killed an estimated 100 million in the 20th century. Following Koch's discovery of the tuberculosis bacteria, nations around the world understood the disease was contagious, and took aggressive efforts to curb its spread. Tuberculosis sanatoriums were set up to house the infected patients - this was done to both prevent the spread of tuberculosis and in hopes that the fresh air would help the patients heal. But, despite their best efforts, 50% of those entering sanatoriums still died of tuberculosis within five years. The first real cure for tuberculosis came in 1946 with the development of the antibiotic streptomycin. But, even as late as 2005, an estimated 1.6 million people died worldwide from tuberculosis.

Koch honed his skills while serving as District Medical Officer for Wollstein (now Wolstyn, Poland) during the Franco-Prussian war. He set up a makeshift laboratory in his four-room apartment. Though he had minimal equipment, and no access to libraries and other scientists, he applied his brilliant mind and boundless determination to a pressing local health issue: anthrax. The farm animals in the area were frequently afflicted with anthrax and Koch was determined to prove the anthrax bacterium, discovered earlier by other scientists, was its cause. Through painstaking research, including the development of homemade slivers of wood with which to inoculate his test mice, Koch provided the first scientific proof of the underlying cause of anthrax. Following publication of this breakthrough, Koch caught the attention of the medical community. In 1880 he was offered a position with the Imperial Health Bureau in Berlin. He left behind his makeshift laboratory and was given his first real laboratory for his research - a narrow, inadequate space initially. But, never one to be overcome by adversity, Koch worked his way into a more suitable laboratory. In fact, his laboratory would become a hotbed of talented researchers and discovery. It was here that Koch refined his methods for studying bacteria. He devised new purification techniques, allowing for more precise isolation of the bacteria. He also developed staining techniques that allowed the bacteria to be seen more easily, and he devised new growth media, allowing for more efficient culturing. Koch drew on these improved techniques to isolate and identify the tuberculosis bacterium. He published his findings in 1882 and set in motion the series of discoveries that would follow in the fight against the dreaded disease of tuberculosis.

Koch's reputation and dedication drew many of the brightest scientists of his day, and many significant discoveries were made in his laboratory. While working on developing new growth media for his cultures, both before and after the discovery of the tuberculosis bacterium, Koch enlisted the help of one of his assistants, Julius Petri. The result was the now famous "Petri dish," a shallow round glass or plastic dish used to culture bacteria. The Petri dish continues to be widely used today.

Introduction by Tim Anderson


Table of Contents

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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 biography:

Robert Koch, by Thomas D. Brock:

Wikipedia entry:<br />

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research


Key Contributors

The Team
Explore other scientists who furthered this lifesaving advance.
Lifesavers: Tuberculosis
Karel Styblo
Developed revolutionary Directly Observed Treatment, Short-course (DOTS) protocol to fight epidemics.

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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Click the thumbnail image to jump to the scientist.  Click the large image, scientist's name or "read more" to go to the scientist's page.

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

Brock, Thomas. Robert Koch:  A Life in Medicine and Bacteriology. ASM Press, 1999.

Munch, Ragnhild. Robert Koch Und Sein Nachlab in Berlin (Veraffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission Zu Berlin) (German Edition). Walter de Gruyter, 2004.

Tracy, Kathleen. Robert Koch and the Study of Anthrax (Uncharted, Unexplored, and Unexplained). (Ages 9-12) Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2004.

Brock, T.D. Robert Koch. Springer-Verlag Tokyo, Inc., 1991.

Ford, William. The life and work of Robert Koch. s.n., 1911.


Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science