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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Robert Koch

In 1876 a country doctor in the small east German town of Wollstein, called Robert Koch (1843-1910) identified the bacterium that causes anthrax. He became interested in the deadly disease and worked on it in a room in his house, using a microscope given to him by his wife as a 28th birthday present.

Koch's discovery was a huge breakthrough as it was the first time it had been proved that infectious diseases are caused by micro-organisms such as bacteria. He developed methods to purify the bacillus from blood samples and grow pure cultures and his first successful treatment was a milkmaid who was dying from anthrax.

In 1881 Robert Koch developed the heat sterilization of surgical instruments. He showed that steam kills bacteria on dressings and instruments more effectively than dry heat.

The lung disease tuberculosis was the scourge of the 18th and 19th centuries in the West wiping out thousands every year. By the middle of the 19th century it was responsible for one in seven of all European deaths. The cause was unknown until on March 24, 1882 Robert Koch discovered the bacterium causing it.

Eight years later Koch prematurely announced he had developed tuberculin, a cure for tuberculosis. Though it proved ineffective as a vaccine against the disease it did work as a way of finding out whether a patient had experienced tuberculosis.

Koch won the 1905 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for his groundbreaking research on tuberculosis.


In 1883 Koch traveled to India to investigate the cause of cholera, which was reaching epidemic levels there. He succeeded in isolating Vibrio cholerae, the cholera microbe that caused the disease and found that the bacillus was transmitted to human beings primarily through water.



Koch improved greatly techniques in the new science of bacteriology. He used dyes to stain bacteria and so make them more visible under the microscope and developed agar plates and the flat glass Petri dish as convenient and efficient ways of growing them.

Although many medical traditionalists mocked bacteriology, late nineteenth century pioneers in it such as Koch and Louis Pasteur took substantial steps forward in the treatment of illnesses.

The Royal Prussian Institute for Infectious Disease which started in 1891, is now called the Robert Koch Institute.

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