Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915)

Paul Ehrlich was a German scientist who conducted pioneering research in the fields of histology, haematology, immunology and chemotherapy.

Ehrlich was born in Upper Silesia, Germany in 1854. He received his early education at the Gymnasium at Breslau, before attending the Universities of Breslau, Strassburg, Freiburg im Breisgau and Leipzig. Ehrlich’s doctoral research focused on the theory and practice of staining animal tissues. He continued this work at the Berlin Medical Clinic, developing pioneering methodologies which have profoundly influenced the work of modern bacteriologists.

After suffering from a severe case of tuberculosis and having received successful treatment, Ehrlich focused his attention on bacterial toxins and antitoxins. In 1890 he was appointed assistant to Robert Koch at the Institute of Infectious Diseases in Berlin, where he began work on immunology. With Emil Adolf von Behring, Ehrlich developed a diphtheria serum used successfully during an epidemic in Germany. Ehrlich’s work on serum resulted in his seminal ‘side chain’ theory. This theory supposed that the side chains of all living cells can link with particular toxins. When under threat, cells grow extra side chains which break off to become antibodies. In 1896 the Institute for Serum Research was established, with Ehrlich as its Director. In 1908 Ehrlich shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work on the immune response.

Ehrlich later moved on to the study of chemotherapy, a term coined to denote the use of chemicals in the treatment or control of disease. In particular he developed the theory of ‘magic bullets’ - chemical substances which have special affinities for pathogenic organisms and therefore seek out specific disease-causing agents and destroy them. Ehrlich, alongside other scientists, proposed that researchers should develop specific drugs to target specific germs, attacking the cause of the disease directly, rather than treating the symptoms. He achieved great success with this work, in 1906 discovering the structural formula of atoxyl, a known treatment for sleeping sickness, and in 1909 developing Salvarsan, an effective treatment against syphilis.

Ehrlich died of a stroke in 1915.