Robert Koch - Biography

Biography

Koch was born in Clausthal-Zellerfeld in the Harz Mountains, then part of Kingdom of Hanover, as the son of a mining official. He studied medicine under Friedrich Gustav Jakob Henle at the University of Göttingen and graduated in 1866. He then served in the Franco-Prussian War and later became district medical officer in Wollstein (Wolsztyn), Prussian Poland. Working with very limited resources, he became one of the founders of bacteriology, the other major figure being Louis Pasteur.

After Casimir Davaine demonstrated the direct transmission of the anthrax bacillus between cows, Koch studied anthrax more closely. He invented methods to purify the bacillus from blood samples and grow pure cultures. He found that, while it could not survive outside a host for long, anthrax built persisting endospores that could last a long time.

These endospores, embedded in soil, were the cause of unexplained "spontaneous" outbreaks of anthrax. Koch published his findings in 1876, and was rewarded with a job at the Imperial Health Office in Berlin in 1880. In 1881, he urged the sterilization of surgical instruments using heat.

In Berlin, he improved the methods he used in Wollstein, including staining and purification techniques and bacterial growth media, including agar plates (thanks to the advice of Angelina and Walther Hesse) and the Petri dish (named after its inventor, his assistant Julius Richard Petri). These devices are still used today. With these techniques, he was able to discover the bacterium causing tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) in 1882 (he announced the discovery on 24 March). Tuberculosis was the cause of one in seven deaths in the mid-19th century. His unsuccessful attempt to develop a cure gave rise to the tuberculin scandal.

In 1883, Koch worked with a French research team in Alexandria, Egypt, studying cholera. Koch identified the vibrio bacterium that caused cholera, though he never managed to prove it in experiments. The bacterium had been previously isolated by Italian anatomist Filippo Pacini in 1854, but his work had been ignored due to the predominance of the miasma theory of disease. Koch was unaware of Pacini's work and made an independent discovery, and his greater preeminence allowed the discovery to be widely spread for the benefit of others. In 1965, however, the bacterium was formally renamed Vibrio cholerae Pacini 1854.

In 1885, he became professor of hygiene at the University of Berlin, then in 1891 he was made Honorary Professor of the medical faculty and Director of the new Prussian Institute for Infectious Diseases (eventually renamed as the Robert Koch Institute), a position from which he resigned in 1904. He started travelling around the world, studying diseases in South Africa, India, and Java. He visited what is now called the Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Mukteshwar on request from the Government of India to investigate cattle plague. The microscope used by him during that period was kept in the museum maintained by IVRI.

Probably as important as his work on tuberculosis, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1905, are Koch's postulates, which say that to establish that an organism is the cause of a disease, it must be:

  • found in all cases of the disease examined, while absent in healthy organisms
  • prepared and maintained in a pure culture
  • capable of producing the original infection, even after several generations in culture
  • retrievable from an inoculated animal and cultured again.

Koch's pupils found the organisms responsible for diphtheria, typhoid, pneumonia, gonorrhoea, cerebrospinal meningitis, leprosy, bubonic plague, tetanus, and syphilis, among others, by using his methods.

As for Koch's personal life, he had no interest in politics and religion did not play a role in his life. He married Emmy Fraaze after graduation from medical school in 1866. They had a daughter together, Gertrud, who was one day to become the wife of Dr.E Pfhul. On his 28th birthday, his wife gave him a microscope which he used frequently in his experiments and other discoveries. Koch remarried to Hedwig Freiberg in 1893.

Robert Koch died on 27 May 1910 from a heart-attack in Baden-Baden, aged 66.

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