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Emil Adolf von Behring, one hundred years of his transition to eternity

Published: 2017.03.28 - 13:03:08   /  alinaig@enet.cu  /  Alina Iglesias Regueyra  /  translated by  Luis E. Amador Dominguez  /luis.amador@renciclopedia.icrt.cu
  

Emil Adolf von Behring, one hundred years of his transition to eternityWhen we attend doctor's offices to vaccinate our babies against diseases such as diphtheria and tetanus, we seldom stop to think about the discoverer of the vaccine that will prevent innumerable problems, perhaps death.

On March 31, this year marks the centenary of the death of Emil Adolf von Behring, a German bacteriologist who received the first Nobel Prize in Physiology-Medicine in 1901, due to a discovery that changed the future of the human species.

In Hansdorf, a town in former East Prussia of the the Germanic Confederation, now named Ławice as Polish territory, Emil Adolf was born on March 15, 1854. He was the first of 13 brothers. His father was a teacher, so the boy soon got into the habit of studying.

He obtained a place in the Academy of Military Medicine in Berlin in 1874, an institution from which he graduated four years later, and in 1880, he passed the state examination that qualified him as Doctor.

While conducting military medicine, he researched matters related to infection by germs in surgeries, and in 1889, he changed his life to the civil sphere, being accepted as an assistant to another great figure, the discoverer of the bacillus that causes tuberculosis: Robert Koch, with whom he worked at the Institute of Hygiene at the University of Berlin.

Von Behring specialized in bacteriology and conducted immunology studies. In 1890, he discovered the tetanus antitoxin, in conjunction with the Japanese bacteriologist Shibasaburo Kitasato, by injecting a small dose of the blood serum from one animal that had been ill with that disease to another, in order to generate immunity to the disease in the second specimen. Both scientists reasoned that the animals were immunized because they must possess a mechanism that controlled the infection and slowed its progress.

After only a year, they successfully applied their discovery to humans, treating a diphtheria-diseased patient with the serum and managing to save her life. Then von Behring stated the existence of substances that he named antitoxins, whose function is to suppress the toxins secreted by the bacteria causing the infection.

This conclusion meant a giant step was taken in the study of the body's defenses, which would soon be projected into the future.

That year he started working at the Institute of Infectious Diseases headed by Koch. He became a professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg in 1894 and a year later, he headed the Institute of Hygiene in Marburg, a position he would occupy until his death.

At the end of the century, he unveiled the results of his research, based on supplying the serum against diphtheria and tetanus to achieve the opposite effect: to prevent the development of these diseases. He proved that there was a capacity for resistance to disease, but not in cells, but in blood serum. Thus, he received the award of the Swedish Academy.

At the University of Marburg, von Behring developed other antitoxins, and already in 1913 proposed an inoculation system that immunizes children right up until today. In his honor, this institution gives a prize with its name to scientists who obtain extraordinary achievements in specialties of Medicine, Veterinary and Natural Sciences.

However, a far greater prize than the Nobel is the thanks of all the mothers of the world, whose offspring are not at risk of suffering or dying from tetanus or diphtheria, thanks to the vaccines discovered by Dr. Emil Adolf von Behring.

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