Johannes Fibiger Biography (1867-1928)

pathologist, bacteriologist

Johannes Fibiger was a Danish bacteriologist whose early work on childhood diphtheria and tuberculosis demonstrated the vital role medical research couldplay in controlling diseases that threatened public health. In 1926, Fibigerreceived the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for demonstrating how cancer-like tissues could be induced experimentally in the laboratory.

Johannes Andreas Grib Fibiger was born on April 23, 1867, in the Danish village of Silkeborg. His father, Christian Fibiger, was a district physician; hismother, Elfride Muller, was a writer and the daughter of a Danish politician. Fibiger attended the University of Copenhagen at age 16 and studied medicine, biology, and zoology. After earning his medical degree in 1890, he undertook several years of medical apprenticeship in various hospitals and with theDanish army.

While working as an assistant in a bacteriological laboratory at the University of Copenhagen Fibiger was persuaded to undertake doctoral work on diphtheria, a virulent childhood disease that caused its victims to suffocate. Fibiger discovered better methods of growing diphtheria bacteria in the laboratoryand demonstrated that there were two distinct forms of the bacillus, an important step in identifying carriers of the disease who frequently displayed nosymptoms. At the turn of the century, diphtheria was a major public health problem, and epidemics were frequent in Denmark and throughout the rest of thedeveloped world. Fibiger produced an experimental serum against the disease and carefully monitored the results of an inoculation program. In 1897, the International Medical Congress published his report, a model of its kind, whichbrought Fibiger international attention and confirmed the effectiveness of the serum. The young scientist had received his Ph.D. only two years earlier.

In 1900, at age 33, he joined the faculty of the Institute of Pathological Anatomy, one of a number of young professors hired by the University of Copenhagen. He was also appointed director of the institute and launched a successful program to construct a modern research facility for pathology and anatomy.Within its walls, Fibiger and another faculty member, C.O. Jenson, conductedresearch on tuberculosis in cattle and humans. Flying in the face of popularopinion, they demonstrated that humans could contract tuberculosis from infected cattle, especially by drinking their milk. Supported by the research of other investigators in Europe, these findings led to the passage of strict regulations governing the sale of raw milk, resulting in fewer adolescent deathsdue to tuberculosis.

Fibiger's experiments on tubercular rats led him to the discovery for which he won the Nobel Prize. In 1907 Fibiger became the first researcher to inducewhat at the time was thought to be cancer in a laboratory setting. Fibiger reported his achievement in the Journal of Cancer Research and was awarded the 1926 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for his discovery of Spiroptera carcinoma, the parasitic worm that he thought had produced the cancer. Yet, in his acceptance speech, Fibiger expressed doubt that parasites played any great role in gastric cancer in humans.

Later investigators would find a number of weaknesses in Fibiger's research.Like most scientists of the period, Fibiger had not thought to check his findings against a control group of rats fed on a diet of only white bread. Nor was it easy to reproduce Fibiger's findings in other laboratories due to the lack of a standard strain of laboratory rats in the 1920s; Fibiger's animals had all been caught in the wild. Other investigators expressed doubt that theabscesses described by Fibiger were truly cancerous. There was some evidence that the abscesses might have been caused by a diet deficient in vitamin A. Nonetheless, the lasting effect of Fibiger's prize-winning discovery--later refuted by other researchers--was the great impetus it gave to other investigators to pursue laboratory research on the causes of cancer.

Fibiger abandoned parasitology after World War I to follow the work of two Japanese scientists who induced skin cancer in rabbits by painting their ears with coal tar. Conducting his own experiments by painting the backs of rats with the irritant, Fibiger reported two valuable insights: that cancer did notoccur with the same frequency in all species or even within the same species,and that individual predisposition played an important role in susceptibility to cancer. At the time of his death, he was working with two colleagues ona vaccine for cancer, hoping to demonstrate that inoculating laboratory animals with matter drawn from malignant tumors would induce immunity to the disease.

During his long career as director of the Institute of Pathological Anatomy at the University of Copenhagen, Fibiger divided his time between research andteaching. He published 79 scientific papers and served as secretary and thenpresident of the Danish Medical Society, and as president of the Danish Cancer Commission. He was co-editor and founder of Acta Pathologica et Microbiologica Scandinavica. In 1927, he was awarded the Nordhoff-Jung Cancer Prize.

On January 30, 1928, Fibiger died in Copenhagen of a massive heart attack atthe age of 60; he had recently learned that he had colon cancer.

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