Emil Adolf Behring was born on March 15, 1854, the eldest son of 13 children. Since the family could not afford to keep Emil at a University, he entered, in 1874, the well-known Army Medical College at Berlin where he also carried the obligation to stay in military service for several years after he had taken his medical degree. IN this service he did much practical work and also studied problems connected with septic diseases.
In the years 1881-1883 he carried out important investigations on the action of iodoform, stating that it does not kill microbes but may neutralize the poisons given off by them, thus being antitoxic. His first publications on these questions appeared in 1882. His superiors recognized the importance of this work in the prevention and combating of epidemics, for further training. In 1888 they ordered him back to Berlin, where he worked as an assistant at the Institute of Hygiene under Robert Koch. He remained there for several years after 1889, and followed Koch when the latter moved to the Institute for Infectious Diseases. This appointment brought him into close association, not only with Koch, but also with P. Ehrlich, who joined, in 1890, the brilliant team of workers Koch had gathered round him.
Behring's most important researches were intimately bound up with the epoch-making work of Pasteur, Koch, Ehrlich and others which led the foundation of our modern knowledge of the immunology of bacterial diseases; but he is, himself, chiefly remembered for his work on diphtheria and on tuberculosis. During the years 1888-1890, others had shown that filtrates of diphtheria cultures which contained no bacilli, contained a substance which they called a toxin, that produced, when injected into animals, all the symptoms of diphtheria. In 1890, two colleagues prepared, from cultures of diphtheria bacilli, a toxic substance, which they called toxalbumin, which when injected in suitable doses into guinea-pigs, immunized these animals to diphtheria.
Starting from his observations on the action of iodoform, Behring tried to find out what would happen if animals were injected with material that had been treated with various disinfectants. The experiments were performed with diphtheria and with tetanus bacilli. They led to the well-known development of a new kind of therapy for these two diseases. In 1890 Behring and S. Kitasato published their discovery that graduated doses of sterilized broth cultures of diphtheria or of tetanus bacilli caused the animals to produce, in their blood, substances which could neutralize the toxins which these bacilli produced (antitoxins). They also showed that the antitoxins thus produced by one animal could immunize another animal and that it could cure an animal actually showing symptoms of diphtheria. This great discovery was soon confirmed and successfully used by other workers.
Earlier in 1898, Behring and Wernicke had found that immunity to diphtheria could be produced by the injection into animals of diphtheria toxin neutralized by diphtheria antitoxin, and in 1907 Theobald Smith had suggested that such toxin-antitoxin mixtures might be used to immunize man against this disease. It was Behring, however, who announced, in 1913, his production of a mixture of this kind, and subsequent work which modified and refined the mixture originally produced by Behring resulted in the modern methods of immunization which have largely banished diphtheria from the scourges of mankind. Behring himself saw in his production of this toxin-antitoxin mixture the possibility of the final eradication of diphtheria; and he regarded this part of his efforts as the crowning success of his life's work.
diphtheria quarantine notice
From 1901 onwards Behring's health prevented him from giving regular lectures and he devoted himself chiefly to the study of tuberculosis. His association with the production of sera and vaccines made him financially prosperous and he owned a large estate at Marburg, which was well stocked with cattle which he used for experimental purposes. Behring published many manuscripts, and received numerous honors, awards, and medals. Of course, in 1901, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for his major contributions to the study of disease and immunology.
Biology 215, Ruth A. Gyure
Western CT State University