Emil Adolf von Behring MD: Antitoxins and Passive Serum Therapy


Emil Adolf von Behring MD (1854-1917)

Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.org


One of the most important pieces of evidence to support the earlier theory of antibodies came from Emil von Behring, who received the first-ever Nobel Prize in Medicine, in 1901. His Nobel Prize medal is now kept on display at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva.


Emil von Behring and his colleagues discovered in 1890 that animals, when injected with tiny, weakened doses of the bacteria that cause tetanus or diphtheria, produce chemicals in their blood that neutralize these microbes’ disease-causing toxins. Not only that, but von Behring established that transferring blood containing these antitoxin chemicals to other animals granted them immunity from the same disease. As opposed to ?active’ immunity, that is, the defense provided by a host’s immune system, receiving these antitoxins from another animal was said to provide ?passive immunity’. Taking this a stage further, von Behring showed that children injected with antitoxin-containing serum were cured of their diphtheria symptoms, and did not die of the disease. This was a hugely important discovery: the vaccines created by Jenner and Pasteur prevented diseases, but von Behring’s discoveries showed how a disease that had already taken hold could be cured. Von Behring was hailed as a savior of children and of soldiers, and the mass-produced form of his serum saved tens of thousands of lives every year in his native Germany alone. Unfortunately, this method of treatment – passive serum therapy – turned out to be useful for only a limited number of diseases. However, anyone who has ever received an anti-venom injection for snakebites has benefited directly from von Behring’s discoveries.


The achievements of von Behring, and of Metchnikov and Ehrlich, helped to establish a brand-new field of science called immunology, one that sought to explore the mysterious workings of the body’s inner defense mechanisms. And once anti-toxins had provided convincing experimental proof for Ehrlich’s antibodies, scientists rushed to investigate these toxin-neutralizing molecules in greater detail. Many diseases are caused by microorganisms, but the body can use its immune system to defend itself against attacks and become immune to new attacks. As part of its defenses, the immune system forms antibodies that neutralize poisons, or toxins, that are formed by bacteria. Emil von Behring and other researchers showed that by means of blood plasma, or serum, antibodies could be transferred from one person or animal to another person, who also then became immune. In 1900 Emil von Behring introduced serum from immune horses as a method to cure and prevent diphtheria.


Emil Adolf von Behring (15 March 1854 – 31 March 1917) was a German physiologist, born in Hansdorf, now Lawice, IIawa County, Poland. Between 1874 and 1878, he studied medicine at the Akademie fur das militararztliche Bildungswesen, Berlin. He was mainly a military doctor and then became Professor of Hygienics within the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Marburg (against the initial strenuous opposition of the faculty council), a position he would hold for the rest of his life. He and the pharmacologist Hans Horst Meyer had their laboratories in the same building, and Behring stimulated Meyer’s interest in the mode of action of tetanus toxin. Behring was the discoverer of diphtheria antitoxin in 1890 and attained a great reputation by that means and by his contributions to the study of immunity. He won the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1901 for the development of serum therapies against diphtheria (which Kitasato Shibasaburo and Emile Roux also contributed to) and tetanus. Diphtheria had been a scourge of the population, especially children, whereas tetanus was a leading cause of death in wars, killing the wounded. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1902. At the International Tuberculosis Congress in 1905 he announced that he had discovered “a substance proceeding from the virus of tuberculosis.“ This substance, which he designated “T C“, plays the important part in the immunizing action of Professor Behring’s “bovivaccine“, which prevents bovine tuberculosis. He tried unsuccessfully to obtain a protective and therapeutic agent for humans. His diphtheria serum was developed by repeatedly injecting the deadly toxin into a horse. The serum was used effectively during an epidemic in Germany. A chemical company preparing to undertake commercial production and marketing of the diphtheria serum offered him a contract.


In December 1896, Behring married the then eighteen-year-old Else Spinola, who was a daughter of Bernhard Spinola, the director of the Charite hospital in Berlin, and a Jewish-born mother who had converted to Christianity upon her marriage. They had six sons. They held their honeymoon at villa “Behring“ on Capri 1897, where Behring owned a vacation home. In 1909-1911, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky lived at this villa. Behring died at Marburg, Hessen-Nassau, on 31 March 1917. His name survived with: the Dade Behring, organization, at the time, the world’s largest company dedicated solely to clinical diagnostics, (now part of the Siemens Healthcare Division), in CSL Behring, a manufacturer of plasma-derived biotherapies, in Behringwerke AG in Marburg, in Novartis Behring and in the Emil von Behring Prize of the University of Marburg, the highest endowed medicine award in Germany.


Sources: Nobelprize.org; Wikipedia



Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.