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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Paul Ehrlich

In 1909 the German chemist-physician Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) developed a chemical treatment for syphilis. For four years he and his assistants had tried hundreds of compounds with molecules not unlike dyes but containing arsenic, as a part of his program to find a “magic bullet” that could locate and destroy the disease microbes in the body with only minor damage to the patient. The six hundred and sixth one they tried was found to be effective against the bacterium that causes syphilis.

Paul Ehrlich around 1900 in his Frankfurt office

This first specific bacterial agent was named Salvarsan (meaning "that which saves by arsenic"). The only previous medications for this disease had contained so much poison that the patient was often killed by the treatment.

The principles used by Ehrlich came to guide this new approach, known as chemotherapy to battling disease. However it was over 20 years later before Gerhard Domagk achieved the next major success.

Ehrlich could be exasperating to work for, he was dictatorial and impatient and appeared to live largely on cigars and mineral water.

Because some people died during the clinical testing of his compound, Ehrlich was much criticized. In 1914, one of the most prominent accusers was convicted of criminal libel at a trial for which Ehrlich was called to testify. Though Ehrlich was thereby exonerated, the ordeal threw him into a depression from which he never fully recovered. He died on August 20, 1915 aged 61, three days after suffering a heart attack.

Paul Ehrlich was buried at the Old Jewish Cemetery, Frankfurt (Block 114 N).

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