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Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915)

The germ theory of disease developed by scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch led to the development of the first ‘magic bullets’, chemicals developed to attack specific bacteria. The German doctor Paul Ehrlich, a member of Koch's research team, stained micro-organisms in order to observe them under the microscope. He found that some of the dyes he used for staining only attached themselves to the specific bacteria he was investigating, but not to human cells. He soon began looking for dyes that would simultaneously stain and act as a poison. These would kill this micro-organism but not the patient. His first working chemical, Salvarsan (discovered in 1905), provided the model for the development of many more ‘magic bullets’.

Throughout his life, Ehrlich's aim was to put chemistry in the service of medicine - he coined the word ‘chemotherapy’ to denote the use of chemicals in the treatment or control of diseases. In 1908 Ehrlich received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research on the immune system.

 

Related links

Techniques and Technologies:

Bibliography

E Bäumler, Paul Ehrlich, Scientist for Life (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1984)

A S Travis, 'Science as receptor of technology: Paul Ehrlich and the synthetic dyestuffs of industry', Science in Context, 3 (1989) pp 383-408

Glossary:

Bacteria

Micro-organisms which can cause disease but have an important role in global ecology.

Micro-Organism

A tiny single-celled living organism too small to be seen by the naked eye. Micro-organisms that cause disease are called bacteria.

Cell

Basic unit of all living organisms, it can reproduce itself exactly.