Emil Adolf Behring

There have been many men bestowed with the Nobel Prize in the past generations and usually for work that proved to be significant for humanity and society. Emil Adolf von Behring made such a contribution and was rightly given the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1901. He was a brilliant man and made amazing discoveries in the field of medicine. He might have lived a hundred years ago but many of his discoveries prove useful up until today.

His Early Life

Emil Adolf Behring was born on 15 March at Hansdorf, Germany. He was the eldest son of a schoolmaster from his second wife who had a total of 13 children. He went to attend university but with that many children the family had a difficult time paying for his university fees. So he moved on to attend the well-known Armey Medical College at Berlin. This gave him a way to study but it also meant that he had an obligation to stay in military service for some years once he had received his medical degree which was in 1878.

He married Else Spinola in 1896. She was the daughter of the Charite Director at Berlin and they had 7 children. Emil Adolf von Behring died on 31 March 1917.

His Career

Two years after he got his degree, he went on to pass the State Examination and was sent to Poland in Wohlau and Posen. He had a lot of practical work to do while he was in Poland but he also made sure that he made time to study problems that concerned septic diseases. He did his studies at the Chemical Department of the Experimental Station. From 1881-83, he had the chance to carry out investigations on iodoform and what it really does. He stated that iodoform didn’t kill microbes as was the popular belief but it did neutralize poisons given off by microbes and acted as an antitoxic.


The very first publication he made of his findings were published in 1882. The governing body that was in charge of military health were very interested in preventing and combatting epidemics so once they were made aware of Behring’s abilities, they took action. They sent Behring to C. Binz, a pharmacologist, so he could undergo even more training especially with experimental methods. A few years after that, in 1888, the same governing body asked him to go back to Berlin where he could work under Robert Koch at the Institute of Hygiene. You would think he was upset at having to leave C. Binz but he was very agreeable to the transfer.

He worked with Koch for several years at the institute but moved to follow Koch when the latter transferred to the Institute for Infectious Diseases. The move with Kick not only made Behring closer to Koch but also gave him the chance to work with another great man, P. Ehrlich. P. Ehrlich joined them in 1890 and was part of the team of brilliant minds that Koch formed around him. In the year 1894, Behring worked as a Professor of Hygiene at Halle and a year after that he made a move to take the same position at Marburg.

Most of Behring’s most important research were at par with such ground-breaking work of men like Koch, Loffler, Roux, Yersin, Pasteur etc. and it cannot be denied that Behring’s work, along with the work of other great men, have contributed a lot to the modern world and even makes up a significant amount of its foundations concerning bacterial diseases. Behring though, is chiefly remembered for the work he conducted on tuberculosis and diphtheria.

While the other great men were hard at work with their pursuits, Behring was busy observing iodoform and what it did. He tried to figure out whether a disinfection of the living organism might be taken if animals were injected with the material that was previously treated with other kinds of disinfectants. It is important to note that nearly all of the experiments were performed with the tetanus bacilli and diphtheria. His works paved the way for new a type of therapy for the two diseases. In 1890, Behring worked with S. Kitasato and came up with studies on sterilised diphtheria or tetanus brothcultures. They published the study where they stated that when injected in animals, their bodies actually produced substances that neutralized toxins produced by the bacilli. They called the substances “antitoxins.”

They also showed that the antitoxins that were produced by one animal could be removed and used to immunize other animals. Their studies also showed that the antitoxins taken from one animal could remedy symptoms of diphtheria in other animals. This was a massive breakthrough that was later confirmed by other scientists.

A couple of years before that, Behring worked with F. Wernicke and they discovered that when animals were injected with diphtheria antitoxin they could be made immune to diphtheria. Theobald Smith suggested in 1907 that such toxin/antitoxin cocktails may be used on people to make them immune against diseases. However, it was Behring himself who announced in 1913 that he was producing such a mixture and he did the work that modified and refined the toxin/antitoxin mix that has banished diphtheria to the recesses of man’s mind. Behring was not afraid to get down and dirty and was actively involved in the creation of the toxin/antitoxin mix that he saw as the key to doing away with diphtheria for good. He saw this as the crowning glory of his life’s work.

His Later Years

Behring’s health took a turn for the worse in 1901 and this prevented him from taking part in regular lectures. Seeing as he could no longer teach, he dedicated himself to studying tuberculosis instead. A commercial worker helped him build a lab in Marburg so he could come up with the necessary findings and vaccine. He also founded the Behringwerke which made vaccines and sera for diseases. Needless to say, his work vaccines and sera made him a rather wealthy man. He bought a large estate in Marburg and kept lots of cattle which he used as lab rats.