German physician and researcher; b. Hansdorf (a hamlet in western Prussia) 1854-03-15, d. Marburg, Germany 1917-03-31. First recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1901.
Emil Adolf Behring was born the fifth son of a schoolteacher in rural Prussia. Being one of twelve children it was a feat that he was sent through all of high school and went on to study medicine. These studies were made possible through a military grant that paid for his studies with the obligation to serve in the armed forces for nine years. It was at the end of his studies, in 1880, that a diphtheria epidemic that swept the country guided him towards the field in which he would excel. Soon after that he began publishing papers based on his experiments with iodoform and theorised that it did not kill bacteria but neutralised the toxins they produced.
Robert Koch's discovery of pathogenic bacteria a few years earlier had set the stage for the advance of immunology. Since that discovery in 1876 numerous such pathogens had been identified and 1887 saw Behring, already an army specialist in infectious disease, posted to the University of Bonn in order to work on the new scientific field of bacteriology. Two years later he was assigned to work with Koch in Berlin.
It was already known that certain chemical substances would inhibit bacterial growth or kill the organisms so disinfectants were already in use, but there was as yet no way to use the knowledge to biologically prevent or cure the disease. At the Hygienic Institute in Berlin Behring assisted Koch and worked alongside other scientists, including Paul Ehrlich, who would also become a Nobel Laureate, in following an untrodden path based on the concept of an antitoxin made by the body itself that would counteract the toxins produced by the pathogen. This idea was based on the observation that animals, once infected and having overcome a disease, were henceforth immune to the same disease.
The serum obtained from the blood of these immune animals, Behring would postulate in an 1893 paper, could be used to fight infections in humans. It had become the focus of his research group to identify specific antitoxins in the blood of the test animals and match them to a disease. The harmful toxin produced by the diphtheria bacterium had been identifed in 1888 by Emile Roux and Alexandre Yersin in France -- what was left was to find the substance that would counteract it.
Behring and Ehrlich were of the opinion that immunity was caused by a factor in living blood whereas other researchers, based on the work of Ilya Mechnikov and Rudolf Virchow, were convinced that immunity and disease worked purely on a cellular level. Although he initially "did not care which way immunity came to be," he was won over by the blood theory and ended up producing an effective immunising factor for diphtheria based on the principle of antibodies.
As early as 1892 Behring had published his first work on serum therapy and the following year his treatise The History of Diphtheria and more papers followed. From December 1892 onwards he also had a stake in the production of diphtheria serum by the Hoechst company. He devised strict scientific methods of investigation and trial and his methodology deemed it important that tests were conducted on animals before human trials could be permitted. He also invented enrichment procedures that would make the serum obtained from animals effective in humans.
Given that diphtheria and tetanus were diseases of enormous social and economic impact, the attention he got through this research was immense. He was strongly supported by the German government and industry for the rest of his life and his work was given priority over that of others.
In 1901, he became the first man of medicine to be awarded the Nobel Prize in his field (and was knighted the same year) but that hardly quenched his thirst for research and discovery and he continued to work himself into the ground pursuing it and would spend three of his last 15 years in a sanatorium recovering. The money from the Nobel Prize enabled him to build his own research facility in 1904, and in 1913 he introduced a diphtheria vaccine based on a mixture of "toxins and antitoxin." Based on the work of his colleague Shibasaburo Kitasato he developed effective tetanus shots that would become invaluable to the military for saving the lives of both men and horses in World War I. His other prize, the discovery of a working vaccine for tuberculosis, would elude him until his early death at the age of 63.
The impact of Behring's work is almost impossible to gage since the title "Saviour of the Children" does little justice to the man whose work resulted in one of the most lethal childhood diseases today being a footnote in European disease statistics. His methods and principles are as valid a hundred years on as they were the day he
Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift
Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin