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discoverer of the bacilli responsible for anthrax and tuberculosis
Robert Koch was born at Klausthal-Zellerfield, Germany, on December 11, 1843. He taught himself to read by the age of five, attended the local high school, and studied medicine at the University of Göttingen. After receiving his medical degree in 1866, Koch went to Berlin to study chemistry for six months, and then became Assistant in the General Hospital at Hamburg, in 1867. He passed his District Medical Officer's Examination at Rackwitz, Posen, in 1869. In 1870 he volunteered for service in the Franco-Prussian War, and from 1872 to 1880 he was District Medical Officer for Wollstein.
It was while at Wollstein that Koch carried out his ground-breaking research on anthrax, a disease that was then prevalent among farm animals. In 1876, working out of his four-room apartment, Koch inoculated mice with anthrax bacilli taken from the spleens of farm animals that had died of anthrax, and found that these mice were all killed by the bacilli, whereas mice inoculated with blood from the spleens of healthy animals did not contract the disease at all, proving that the disease could be transmitted by the blood of animals suffering from anthrax. He then grew his own pure anthrax cultures, with which he was able to prove that anthrax bacilli could cause the disease in an animal even if they had never had contact with another animal.
In 1876, Ferdinand Cohn, Professor of Botany at the University of Breslau, published Koch's work in the botanical journal of which he was editor. Although the article gave Koch instant fame, he continued to work out of his apartment for another four years, improving his methods of growing and studying bacteria and conducting research on the diseases caused by bacterial infections of wounds. In 1878, he published a practical and scientific basis for the control of such infections.
Appointed government adviser with the Imperial Department of Health in Berlin in 1880, Koch finally had access to a proper laboratory in which to continue his research. In this laboratory he invented new methods of cultivating pure cultures of bacteria, as well as new methods of staining bacteria to make them more visible and easier to identify and study. He also developed a series of conditions, now known as Koch's Postulates, which must be satisfied before it can be accepted that particular bacteria cause particular diseases. In 1882, Koch discovered the tubercule bacillus responsible for causing tuberculosis. In the late 1890's he successfully prepared an extract from tubercle bacilli, which he called tuberculin, to be used in diagnosing cases of tuberculosis. He also argued that the bacilli that caused human and bovine tuberculosis were different. In addition to anthrax and tuberculosis, Koch also conducted research on cholera, diptheria, malaria, sleeping sickness, blood infections, and the bubonic plague. In 1891, he founded the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Berlin, and became its director.
Koch was the recipient of many prizes and medals, including: the 1905 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, the German Order of the Crown, the Grand Cross of the German Order of the Red Eagle, and Orders from Russia and Turkey.
Robert Koch died in Baden-Baden on May 27, 1910.
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This page was last updated on 02/05/2019.