Paul Ehrlich Biography (1854-1915)


Through his comprehensive study of the effects of chemicals in the human body, Ehrlich fathered the fields of chemotherapy (the treatment of disease with chemical agents) and hematology (the study of blood). He also made important contributions to the understanding of immunity and discovered Salvarsan, the first effective treatment for syphilis.

Ehrlich was born on March 14, 1854, in Strehlen, Silesia (then part of Germany), to a prosperous Jewish family. He was the son of Ismar Ehrlich and his wife, Rosa, the aunt of bacteriologist Karl Weigert. Ehrlich's interest in biology and chemistry led him to study medicine. He attended universities in Breslau, Strasbourg, Frieberg-im-Briesgau, and Leipzig, earning his medical degree in 1878. Ehrlich was fascinated by the reactions of cells and tissues to dyes. Using aniline dyes, for example, Ehrlich investigated white blood cells.In the process, he developed new ways of staining cells for research, including the methylene blue stain for bacteria. Heinrich Koch used this stain whenhe discovered the bacillus that causes tuberculosis.

In 1890, Ehrlich became a professor at the University of Berlin, where he worked with Emil von Behring and Shibasaburo Kitasato on the study of immunity,or the body's own defense against disease. The group searched for a substancethat would give immunity against diphtheria using antitoxins. Antitoxins areantibodies produced by the body's immune system to fight poisons invading the body. Ehrlich worked on the chemical aspects of the study and, in 1892, thegroup announced the development of a diphtheria antitoxin for medical use. Ehrlich also pioneered the production of large quantities of the antitoxin using horses. He shared the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Soviet biologist Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916) for his work on immunity and serumtherapy.

In 1894, Ehrlich was made director of a new institute for serum research in Frankfurt, where he studied the concepts of active and passive immunity and developed his "side-chain" theory of immunity to explain how antitoxins work at the cellular level in response to toxins. Ehrlich also continued his study of blood using staining techniques. Realizing that stains colored bacteria but not surrounding cells, he looked for a way to combine the stain with a substance that could kill the bacteria. This, he reasoned, could bea "magic bullet" in the fight against bacterial diseases. He also identifieddyes, such as trypan red, that had the ability to destroy microorganisms on their own.

Ehrlich began working with organic compounds containing arsenic because he felt its properties were similar to those of the nitrogen atoms that gave trypan red its effectiveness. He studied literally hundreds of arsenic compounds and, by 1907, he had reached number 606, which he put aside because it was noteffective against trypanosomes. However, two years later, Ehrlich's assistant, Sahachiro Hata (1872-1938), discovered that the compound number 606 was effective against the dread disease syphilis. Caused by a microorganism calleda spirochete, syphilis meant a slow and painful death for thousands ofpeople. In 1910, Ehrlich announced that chemical 606, which he called Salvarsan, could cure syphilis.

For several years, Ehrlich suffered personal and professional attacks becauseof his work with syphilis. Some felt the disease was a just punishment for sinful sexual behavior and attacked Ehrlich for searching for a cure. The administration of the drug was also complicated, even risky at first, and when afew patients died because doctors administering the drug failed to follow Ehrlich's instructions, Ehrlich was accused of fraud. The attacks finally ceasedin 1914, when the German parliament at last endorsed his cure as authentic.

Ehrlich was married in 1883 to Hedwig Pinkus. The couple had two daughters. Unfortunately, the strain surrounding Ehrlich's controversial efforts to curesyphilis took its toll on his health and he suffered a series of strokes during his last year, which led to his death in Bad Homburg, Germany, in 1915.

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