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This Month in Medical History: simple tools paired with a brilliant mind

by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor | December 24, 2010
This month we celebrate the birthday of Robert Koch. Koch was born in Clausthal, Germany on December 11, 1843.

Although he displayed a brilliant mind early - teaching himself to read by the age of five using newspapers, his education didn't remain independent. He attended the University of Göttingen where he studied under anatomy professor Jacob Henle. It's likely that Henle's theories regarding infectious diseases influenced Koch's own later theories.

Koch received his medical degree in 1866 and a year later, established his own practice. He spent only three years in practice before he enlisted for service during the Franco-Prussian war.

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Following the war, Koch served as the district medical officer for Wollstein. The appointment would prove to be momentous for the medical field.

Farm animals in the area were commonly afflicted with anthrax and Koch held suspicions about the disease's cause. Armed with just a microscope and homemade equipment, lacking access to medical libraries or colleagues and working during his free time away from his practice in a lab he constructed in his four-room apartment, Koch still managed to contribute significantly to modern medicine.

Treating slivers of wood with anthrax specimens taken from the spleens of infected farm animals, he inoculated mice with the disease. As a control, he inoculated other mice with samples of materials from the spleens of healthy animals. His theory that the disease could pass from one victim to another through blood was confirmed with the deaths of the mice receiving the samples from the infected animals.

However, his research wasn't concluded. Koch still held curiosity regarding the disease's origin. He wanted to find out if the anthrax bacilli could infect an organism without needing to transfer from a host. To accomplish this, he utilized the invention of his colleague R.J. Petri to raise anthrax in a pure environment. During his experiments, Koch discovered the bacteria's self-preservation methods, noting the spores they produced to maintain life when adverse conditions threatened. After cultivating multiple generations of the bacilli, he again inoculated mice. These mice also died, confirming Koch's further hunch.

His work was later published and delivered high praise and fame, but Koch continued his studies and investigations. He went on to discover the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis and cholera and based on his studies of cholera, introduced recommendations on potable water safety which significantly reduced the incidence of the disease and are still in use today.

Using his methods, his pupils went on to determine the causes of a number of deadly diseases including diphtheria, pneumonia and typhoid.

Along with numerous awards and accolades, Koch was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1905. He died five years later of a heart-attack at the age of 66.

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