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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nobel Laureate: Robert Koch


The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1905

"for his investigations and discoveries in relation to tuberculosis"

Robert Koch (1843 - 1910) won the Noble Prize in 1905 for demonstrating that specific bacteria can cause common diseases. Tuberculosis was the specific disease mentioned in the citation.

At the time of the award, Koch was already a very famous scientist. Part of his reputation was based on The Most Famous Speech in Medical History but he was also widely respected for identifying the bacteria causes of other diseases.

The most important part of the Presentation Speech is the part that emphasizes the general contribution of Koch to the study of bacteriology (see below). Koch is recognized as one of the founders of the modern field of microbiology. One of his co-workers, Paul Ehrlich, won the Nobel Prize three years after Koch [Nobel Laureate: Paul Ehrlich].
Nobel Laureates
To start with, developing a general methodology is as valuable as finding the correct technique for every special case. Koch's genius has blazed new trails in this respect and has given present-day research its form. To give a detailed description of this is beyond the scope of this account. I only want to mention that he had moreover already given a significant development to techniques in staining and microscopic investigation as well as in the field of experiment in his earliest work. Shortly after this he produced the important method, which is still generally the usual one, of spreading the material under investigation in a solid nutrient medium to allow each individual among the micro-organisms present to develop into a fixed colony, from which it is possible, in further research, to go on to obtain what is known as a pure culture.

Shortly after the publication of his investigations into diseases from wound infections Koch was appointed to the new Institution, the «Gesundheitsamt» (Department of Health), in Berlin. There he started work on some of the most important human diseases, namely, tuberculosis, diphtheria and typhus. He worked on the former one himself. The two latter investigations he left to his first two pupils and assistants, Loeffler and Gaffky. For all three diseases the specific bacteria were discovered and studied in detail.

To give an account of the work which Koch carried out, or accomplished through his pupils, and also to mention the work which derives more indirectly from Koch, would nearly be the same as describing the development of bacteriology over the last few decades. I will content myself with naming some of the most important discoveries and items of research which, in addition to those already named, are more directly linked with Koch's name. At the head of the German Cholera Commission Koch investigated the parasitic aetiology of cholera in Egypt and India, and discovered the cholera bacillus and the conditions necessary for its life. Experience thus gained found practical application in the development of measures taken to prevent and combat this devastating disease. In addition Koch made important investigations concerning plague in humans, malaria, tropical dysentery, and the Egyptian eye disease (trachoma) among others, and now finally concerning typhus recurrens in tropical Africa. He has also carried out work of exceptional importance, concerning a host of destructive tropical cattle diseases, such as rinderpest, Surra disease, Texas fever, and finally concerning coast fever in cattle and the trypanosome disease carried by the tsetse fly.

Through the perfection he gave to methods of culturing and identifying micro-organisms, he has been able to carry out his work with regard to disinfectants and methods of disinfection so important for practical hygiene, and advice concerning the early detection and combating of certain epidemic diseases such as cholera, typhus and malaria.

[Image Credits: Wolsztyn - Wollstein/statue: Wikipedia/movie poster: Journal of Medicine and Movies]

The images of the Nobel Prize medals are registered trademarks of the Nobel Foundation (© The Nobel Foundation). They are used here, with permission, for educational purposes only.

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