August von Wassermann Biography (1866-1925)


August von Wassermann discovered a blood serum test that enabled doctors to find out if a patient had syphilis, a potentially lethal disease which, in some patients, has a very long latency period during which no symptoms are detectable.

Wassermann was born in Bamberg, Germany, on February 21, 1866, to Dora (Bauer) and Angelo Wassermann, a banker. He received his secondary education in Bamberg and studied medicine at several German and Austrian universities. Wassermann married Alice von Taussig in 1895. They had two sons. He received his M.D. degree in 1888 at the University of Strasbourg. In 1890, Wassermann beganwork at the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Berlin, which was directed by Robert Koch.

Although Wassermann did important work on tetanus, cholera, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, he is best known for his discovery of a blood serum test (now called the Wassermann test) that enabled doctors to find out if a patient was infected by syphilis. The bacterium that causes syphilis, Treponema pallidum, can lay dormant in a person's body for many years, even a lifetime, without ever manifesting overt symptoms. Syphilis can be spread by sexual intercourse or from a pregnant mother to her fetus. Therefore, people who are infected with the bacterium need to be identified, so they can be treated and donot spread the disease unintentionally.

In 1906, Wassermann and Albert Neisser developed a syphilis test for the blood serum of patients. Serum is the pale yellow fluid that is one of the constituents of blood. People with syphilis produce an antibody, which is a molecule in the blood serum produced by the body's immune system to attack the syphilis bacterium. When a patient's blood serum with the syphilis antibody is introduced into a mixture of beef heart extract, animal blood serum, and washedred blood cells, the patient's antibody combines with parts of the mixture tocreate visible clumps of cells, which demonstrate the presence of the antibody and thus the presence of the syphilis bacterium. Wassermann's test helpeddoctors detect syphilis in babies and adults in order to treat the disease more effectively at an earlier stage in its development. The test is a very useful, inexpensive screening procedure. However, if positive, it must be confirmed with a more specific blood test

From 1903 to 1909, in collaboration with Wilhelm Kolle, Wassermann wrote thesix-volume Handbuch der pathogenen Mikroorganismen, a book about disease-producing microorganisms. Wassermann was named the director of the department of experimental therapy at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1913. In 1924, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, and he died in Berlin on March 16, 1925. He continued to direct the department of experimental therapy upuntil his death.

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