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Emil von Behring – from village kid to the 1st Nobel Prize winner

Emil Behring sitting.

Emil Behring (1854-1917), the “saviour of children”, the “saviour of soldiers”, local politican, 1st Nobel Prize of Physiology or Medicine winner and nobleman (both since 1901), Geheimrat (since 1903) and successful businessman. That is what Behring achieved in his life. But he was also a troubled character aiming for recognition.

As son of a teacher in a village, Emil could not afford to study medicine and so he had to serve 8 years as medical officers after his studying. At the military he had learnt the importance of hygiene and prevention of epidemics.

Assistant of Robert Koch and assistant medical officer at the Charité were his next career steps. In 1890 he (together with Kitasato Shibasaburo) started to develop his serum therapy and published the essay „Über das Zustandekommen der Diphtherieimmunität und der Tetanusimmunität bei Thieren“ (on reaching diphtheria and tetanus immunity of animals).
The readiness to go into production was reached with the support of Paul Ehrlich and the Farbwerke Hoechst, where the serum was produced first.

The scientific break-through came in 1894, when the diphtheria serum was used successfully in clinics from Berlin to Leipzig. The serum replaced the tracheotomy, were in a risky surgery a tracheal tube was inserted into the trachea to allow the patient to breathe without using his/her mouth and nose. The tracheotomy had been used since 1832 as last resort to rescue the patient´s life suffering from diphtheria as the diphtheria pathogen blocked the airways.

Behring vs. Ehrlich

A photo montage of Ehrlich (left) and Behring (right) by the "Berliner Illustrierten Zeitung" honouring their 60th birthday.
Cover picture of the „Berliner Illustrierten Zeitung“ celebrating their 60th birthday

Beside Behring´s disagreement with his teacher Robert Koch, his colleague Paul Ehrlich was the person he was often heavily arguing with.

The Behring-Ehrlich relationship is best described as a roller coaster ride – full of ups and downs: Actually, they had a lot in common:

  • born just one day apart (Ehrlich was first ;P)
  • similar career paths: medical officers to finance their studying, pupils and assistants of Robert Koch, colleagues for many years and finally Nobel Prize winners (Ehrlich in 1908) both for their work on the diphtheria serum
  • both fought/cured widespread illnesses: Behring diphtheria and tetanus; Ehrlich syphilis and founded modern chemotherapy with “Salvarsan”
  • both faced antisemitism: Ehrlich for himself and Behring for his Jewish wife Elsa
  • died both during WWI and were buried in Hessen.

32 letters – from 1894 to 1915 – between them show that they were connected for the rest of their lives – even when they did not work together any longer.

It could be said that their relationship had a Happy End: At Ehrlich´s funeral in 1915 Behring gave the grief speech.

Who benefited most from their work together, Behring or Ehrlich? It was Behring. But why? Ehrlich´s research increased the concentration of the active substance and managed to standardize the medication.

To sum up, Behring was more successful in an economic sense and in society. But Ehrlich was the better scientist.

Recognition as #lifegoal

Till 1901, when he won the Nobel Prize, Behring fought for recognition: His difficult personality did not make it easier.

A difficult personality

Behring was intelligent, curious, disciplined, accurate, concentrated, organized and communicative. But also a workaholic, sworn to secrecy, rude and ruthless. From time to time he isolated himself and suffered from severe depressions, for which he was treated at least from 1907-1910. And his fight for recognition left him mistrustful for the rest of his life.

The Professor

In 1895 Behring came to Marburg to work at the Philipps University. His colleagues were warned about his difficult personality and well let´s say they were not that amused to have him in Marburg: Behring´s teaching skills were said to be not the best and that he himself was a difficult colleague.

Behring was not very found of teaching so he left this job to his assistance while he focused on his research.

The Networker

Behring was communicative: In the evenings, he often invited colleagues to his villa. In the “Marburg Kränzchen” representatives from medicine, botany, zoology, physiology and other sciences met. Behring also interacted with representatives of humanities, like the theologian Wilhelm Hermann and Ernst Elster, the historian of literature.

He also wrote many letters and stayed in contact with scientists outside Germany – even during the WWI.

Did you know that …
the communication between Behring and Pasteur lead to the treatment of French soldiers suffering from tetanus during WWI.

Behring kept in touch with Kitasato Shibasaburo (with whom he worked on the diphtheria serum) when he went back to Japan: The connection had a long-term effect as in the 1970s Japan was the biggest export partner of the Behringwerke.

Behring´s role and integration in the science community can be seen in the choice of the godfathers for his 6 sons: Èmile Roux, Carl Wernicke, Wilhelm Röngten, Ilja Metschnikow and Friedrich Althoff.

The Businessman

Serum pruduction in the stables at the Behringwerke (around 1905). The blood of horses was used to treat diphtheria.
Serum production at the Behringwerke around 1905 by Fritz Gehrke

In 1904 Behring founded the after him named “Behringwerke” with the prize money of the Nobel Prize to produce the serum against diphtheria. The Behringwerke, today an industrial park, became a considerable economic factor for the city of Marburg and its surrounding.

Did you know that …
… the Behringwerke ,as part of I. G. Farben, supported the typhus fever experiments in the KZ Buchenwald.
… in 1967 the Marburg virus broke out at the Behringwerke, due to the exposure of factory workers with tissues of infected grivet monkeys.

2 replies on “Emil von Behring – from village kid to the 1st Nobel Prize winner”

Hey. I am so glad that you enjoyed reading my article. Thank you so much for your kind words.
All the Best,
Julia

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