Emil von Behring Biography (1854-1917)


Emil von Behring was one of the founders of the science of immunology. His discovery of the diphtheria and tetanus antitoxins paved the way for the prevention of these diseases through the use of immunization. It also opened the door for the specific treatment of such diseases with the injection of immune serum. Behring's stature as a seminal figure in modern medicine was recognizedin 1901 when he received the first Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Emil Adolf von Behring was born on March 15, 1854, in Hansdorf, West Prussia(now Germany). He was the eldest son of August Georg Behring, a schoolmasterwith thirteen children, and his second wife, Augustine Zech Behring. Althoughhis father planned for him to become a minister, young Behring had an inclination toward medicine. The family's meager circumstances seemed to put this goal out of his reach, however. Then one of Behring's teachers, recognizing great promise, arranged for his admission to the Army Medical College in Berlin, where he was able to obtain a free medical education in exchange for futuremilitary service. He received his doctor of medicine degree in 1878, and twoyears later he passed the state examination that allowed him to practice.

The army promptly sent Behring to Posen (now Poznan, Poland), then to Bonn in1887, and finally back to Berlin in 1888. His first published papers, whichdate from this period, dealt with the use of iodoform as an antiseptic. Aftercompleting his military service in 1889, Behring became an assistant at theInstitute of Hygiene in Berlin, joining a brilliant team of researchers headed by Robert Koch, a leading light in the new science of bacteriology.

It was while working in Koch's laboratory that Behring began his pioneering investigations of diphtheria and tetanus. Both of these diseases are caused bybacilli (bacteria) that do not spread widely through the body, but produce generalized symptoms by excreting toxins. Diphtheria, nicknamed the "strangling angel" because of the way it obstructs breathing, was a terrible killer ofchildren in the late nineteenth century. Its toxin had first been detected byothers in 1888. Tetanus, likewise, was fatal more often than not. In 1889, the tetanus bacillus was cultivated in its pure state for the first time by Shibasaburo Kitasato , another gifted member of Koch's team.

The next year, Behring and Kitasato jointly published their classic paper, "Ueber das Zustandekommen der Diphtherie-Immunität und der Tetanus-Immunität bei Thieren" ("The Mechanism of Immunity in Animals to Diphtheria andTetanus"). One week later, Behring alone published another paper dealing with immunity against diphtheria and outlining five ways in which it could be achieved. These reports announced that injections of toxin from diphtheria or tetanus bacilli led animals to produce in their blood substances capable of neutralizing the disease poison.

Behring and Kitasato dubbed these substances antitoxins. Furthermore, injections of blood serum from an animal that had been given a chance to develop antitoxins to tetanus or diphtheria could confer immunity to the disease on other animals, and even cure animals that were already sick.

The news created a sensation. Several papers confirming and amplifying theseresults, including some by Behring himself, appeared in rapid succession. In1893, Behring described a group of human diphtheria patients who were treatedwith antitoxin. That same year, he was given the title of professor. However, Behring's diphtheria antitoxin did not yield consistent results. It was thebacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, another of the talented associates in Koch's lab, who was chiefly responsible for standardizing the antitoxin, thus making it practical for widespread therapeutic use. Working together, Ehrlichand Behring also showed that high-quality antitoxin could be obtained from horses, as well as from the sheep used previously, opening the way for large-scale production of the antitoxin.

In 1894, Behring accepted a position as professor at the University of Halle.A year later, he was named a professor and director of the Institute of Hygiene at the University of Marburg. Thereafter he focused much of his attentionon the problem of immunization against tuberculosis. His assumption, unfounded as it turned out, was that different forms of the disease in humans and incattle were closely related. He tried immunizing calves with a weakened strain of the human tuberculosis bacillus, but the results were disappointing. Although his bovine vaccine was widely used for a time in Germany, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, it was found that the cattle excreted dangerous microorganisms afterward. Nevertheless, Behring's basic idea of using a bacillus from one species to benefit another influenced the development of later vaccines.

Behring did not entirely abandon his work on diphtheria during this period. In 1913, he announced the development of a toxin-antitoxin mixture that resulted in longer-lasting immunity than did antitoxin serum alone. This approach was a forerunner of modern methods of preventing, rather than just treating, the disease. Today children are routinely and effectively vaccinated against diphtheria and tetanus.

However, the first great drop in diphtheria mortality was due to the antitoxin therapy introduced earlier by Behring, and it is for this contribution thathe is primarily remembered. The fall in the diphtheria death rate around theturn of the century was one of the sharpest ever recorded for any treatment.In Germany alone, an estimated 45,000 lives per year were saved. It is no wonder, then, that Behring received the 1901 Nobel Prize "for his work on serumtherapy, especially its application against diphtheria, by which he ... opened a new road in the domain of medical science and thereby placed in the hands of the physician a victorious weapon against illness and deaths." Behring was also elevated to the status of nobility and shared a sizable cash prize from the Paris Academy of Medicine with Émile Roux , the French bacteriologist who was one of the men who had the diphtheria toxin in 1888. In addition, Behring was granted honorary memberships in societies in Italy, Turkey, France, Hungary, and Russia.

There were other, financial rewards as well. From 1901 onward, ill health prevented Behring from giving regular lectures, so he devoted himself to research. A commercial firm in which he had a financial interest built a well-equipped laboratory for his use in Marburg, Germany. Then, in 1914, Behring established his own company to manufacture serums and vaccines. The profits from this venture allowed him to keep a large estate at Marburg, on which he grazed cattle used in experiments. This house was a gathering place of society. Behring also owned a vacation home on the island of Capri in the Mediterranean.

In 1896 Behring married 18-year-old Else Spinola, daughter of the director ofa Berlin hospital. They had seven children. Yet despite all outward appearances of personal and professional success, Behring was subject to frequent bouts of serious depression, some of which required sanatorium treatment. In addition, a fractured thigh led to a condition that increasingly impaired his mobility. He was already in a weakened state when he contracted pneumonia in 1917. His body was unable to withstand the added strain, and he died on March 31 in Marburg, Germany.

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