Diseases have swept across communities and nations for all of recorded history. In the midst of the devastation, panic erupts. Always, there are those dedicated men and women working to relieve suffering and find a cure. Doctors and scientists often face challenges from those gripped with fear or superstition as they move to expand the reach of medicine. Dr. Paul Ehrlich was one of those great figures in medicine, who cured several diseases and greatly increased the understanding of the workings of the immune system.
Paul Ehrlich was born in Germany in 1854. His father and grandfather had both been innkeepers and liquor distillers. The younger Ehrlich earned his medical degree in 1878.
Inspired by his cousin, Dr. Karl Weigert, himself a famous physician, he began his early medical career studying staining processes for bacteria and animal cells so they could be more readily identified and cataloged. His worked earned him an appointment as professor at the University of Berlin.
In 1890, he was appointed as a researcher at the Institute of Infectious Diseases. In 1893, a deadly diphtheria epidemic swept across Berlin. Ehrlich and his colleague, Dr. Emil Behring, had been working to develop serums to cure diphtheria and tetanus, both fatal illnesses. Though their work was showing great promise, authorities were fearful to allow them to administer their cure. After demonstrating the science behind it, they were eventually able to move ahead. The patients were cured, and the epidemic ended.
Ehrlich had to combat those who did not understand the science behind his ideas or how medicine even worked. Behring and Ehrlich had effectively developed the cure for two horrible diseases, but Ehrlich had to overcome the prejudices against his Jewish heritage and the uneducated critics who had never done the hours of work in a lab that he had done. Behring himself won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1901.
Ehrlich continued to study the immune system and developed many important insights into how the body fought disease and how immunity was gained to keep the body from getting the same illness again. He came to believe in the idea of the "magic bullet" in medicine, that is, creating a chemical that would target only a specific type of germ or a specific type of tumor. Through this work, he helped develop the theoretical basis of chemotherapy, one of the most important tools in treating cancer.
One of his discoveries was a new chemical for staining bacteria so they could be studied under the microscope. Methylene blue, named because it turned certain bacteria blue, offered a major advance in the study of microbes. Additionally, it stained nerve cells blue also, allowing scientists to study the nervous system more closely.
For his work with immunology, he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908. Even with this honor, Ehrlich was determined to explore new fields of medicine.
Syphilis was a deadly disease and devastating social problem at the turn of the century. Though some people balked at his attempt to cure a sexually transmitted disease, Ehrlich pointed out how innocent spouses were often infected and how the disease was even transmitted to newborns during birth. With his fellow researchers, he conducted hundreds of experiments to find the key to neutralizing the deadly pathogen. By 1911, they had the answer. Salvarsan was a substance based on arsenic, but it was chemically balanced in a way that killed the syphilis bacteria without harming the patient. It was the first effective treatment for syphilis. It was later discovered that salvarsan effectively treated African sleeping sickness, a deadly disease caused by a parasite. Even with this breakthrough, he was still attacked as reckless and his treatments as dangerous. In the end, science proved that Ehrlich was correct.
Ehrlich died of a heart attack in 1915 at age 61. Several streets in Germany were named for him as well as a crater on the Moon. In 1940, a movie based on his life, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, premiered, which starred Edward G. Robinson, a popular actor known mostly for his portrayal of gangsters up to that point. Because of Ehrlich’s Jewish ancestry, officials in Nazi Germany banned the movie. Nevertheless, Ehrlich’s work continued to gain respect around the world. After World War II, Ehrlich was featured on the 200 Mark bank note in Germany. The Institute of Infectious Diseases was renamed for him as well. And the most important legacy of Ehrlich is millions of people with lives of hope and good health with his work in curing four deadly diseases.