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Paul EhrlichPaul Ehrlich

[er' likh] pioneer in the field of chemotherapy

Paul Ehrlich was born in Strehlen, Germany, on March 14, 1854. He graduated from St. Maria Magdalena Humanistic Gymnasium in Wroclaw, Poland, in 1872, and subsequently attended the universities of Breslau, Strassburg, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, and Leipzig. He earned his Doctorate of Medicine by means of a dissertation on the theory and practice of staining animal tissues in 1878, and subsequently became a lecturer at La Charité Hospital, Berlin (1878-1896).

While at the hospital, Ehrlich was allowed to continue his work with dyes and tissue staining, and was eventually able to show that all the dyes used could be classified as being basic, acid or neutral. His work on the staining of white and red blood cells laid the foundation for future work in haemotology. One of the first practical results of his work was a method for staining the tuberculosis bacteria discovered by Robert Koch, which he published in 1882. From this work was derived the Gram method of staining bacteria, the first step in the identification of a bacterial organism, that is still used by bacteriologists today.

In 1882, Ehrlich's thesis The Need of the Organism for Oxygen qualified him for a position as unpaid lecturer in the Faculty of Mecine at the University of Berlin. He was elevated to a full professorship in 1884. In 1890 Robert Koch hired him as his assistant at the Institute for Infectious Diseases, where he worked with Emil von Behring to develop a diptheria antitoxin.

In 1896, Ehrlich was appointed Director of the newly established Institute for the Control of Therapeutic Sera at Steglitz, Berlin. There, he showed that the reaction between toxin and antitoxin is affected by temperature and that the amount of antitoxin in sera varied so greatly between batches and individual samples that it was necessary to establish a standard by which their antitoxin content could be exactly measured. In 1897 he developed the Side-Chain Theory, in which he proposed that animal cells and bacteria act like dye, with complex molecules reacting with each other through side chains when these side chains have corresponding structure; this theory successfully explained the effects of serum on a toxin, and allowed a way to measure the amount of antigen in any given batch or dosage. The Institute was moved to Frankfurt and extended into the Institute of Experimental Therapy in 1899.

After making the move to Frankfurt, Ehrlich turned his attention to chemotherapy, basing his work on the idea, which had been implicit in his doctorate thesis, that the chemical constitution of drugs used must be studied in relation to their mode of action and their affinity for the cells of the organisms against which they were directed. His goal was to find chemical substances which would target specific pathogenic organisms. After testing hundreds of substances, he eventully discovered trypan red, which proved effective against the parasitic protozoa that cause sleeping sickness. He also established the correct structural formula of atoxyl, an arsenic-based compound that eventually proved effective against the syphillis bacterium. Salvarsan, the antiobiotic that was developed as a result of this research, was introduced in 1910. In 1908, he shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Ilya Metchnikoff, a pioneer in the field of immunology.

During the later years of his life, Ehrlich was concerned with experimental work on tumours and on his view that sarcoma may develop from carcinoma. In 1914 he suffered a slight stroke, recovery from which was complicated by the tuberculosis he had suffered earlier in life. A second stroke, suffered in Bad Homburg, Germany, on August 20, 1915, proved fatal. He was survived by his wife, Hedwig, whom he had married in 1883, and two daughters.


Robert Koch
Emil von Behring
Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine

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This page was last updated on 12/13/2014.

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