What would the world be like without Robert Koch? The pathogens of cholera and tuberculosis would still be carrying out their deadly work unnoticed. Anthrax would still be a major threat to herds of sheep and cattle. And, presumably, Alexander Flemming would not have discovered penicillin, as he grew his bacteria using Koch’s methods. What’s certain is that, without Robert Koch, the world would be different – and the Goslar region would be missing one of its most important sons.
By the end of his life, the famous doctor, microbiologist and hygienist had revolutionised medicine. Yet, little about his early his life indicated that he would have a spectacular career as a bacteriologist. After all, Robert Koch was born on 11 December 1843 as the son of a simple miner in Clausthal, not far from Goslar. He wanted to be an explorer – like his role model Alexander von Humboldt, who mapped the globe. However, several years passed before Robert Koch was able to pursue his thirst for knowledge and achieve global fame with the discovery of bacteria and pathogens.
Years of training and travel
As one of ten children, Robert Koch was initially set to be a teacher, yet, immediately after his first semester of philology, he switched to the faculty of medicine, where he devoted great enthusiasm to his studies and left the University of Göttingen as a medical doctor in 1866. Following his studies, Koch gained experience in a wide range of areas: as a hospital doctor in Hamburg, where he experienced the terrible cholera epidemic in 1866, as a country doctor near Hanover and as a volunteer in the medical service during the Franco-Prussian War, where he treated soldiers suffering from dysentery and typhus. After these years of training and travel, he completed the ‘Physikatsexamen’ exam in 1872 at the age of 29 and became established as a public medical officer in the province of Poznan in the same year.
Fortunately, his new position allowed him time not only for his own private practice, which he ran at the same time, but also for his great passion: bacteriological research. To this end, he set up a small laboratory at his home, where he researched in his free time without a library and under the most basic conditions. Koch was particularly fascinated by Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax. Although it was already known at the time that the rod-shaped bacteria can be found in the blood, no one had been able to demonstrate that it is also the cause of the illness. Koch, however, was able to observe under the microscope how the pathogen formed the first spores, which then turned into bacteria and multiplied in this way. This discovery was an important step in his career, which earned him a position with the Imperial Department of Health in Berlin in 1880.
A career with highs and lows
At the Imperial Department of Health, Koch developed various new techniques to grow and dye bacteria – the prerequisite for the discovery and detection of the tuberculosis pathogen, which was responsible for 15 percent of deaths at that time. Robert Koch became known among experts in 1882 with his lecture to the Berlin Physiological Society on the tuberculosis bacterium, which he named. And so it was only logical that he was appointed as a full professor at the newly created Department of Hygiene at Berlin University in 1885.
The doctor devoted the following years to teaching and science and so, alongside Louis Pasteur, became the founder of bacteriology. On many journeys from India to South Africa and from Egypt to Japan, he researched sleeping sickness in addition to cholera, malaria and the plague, and, in the spirit of his role model, Alexander von Humboldt, discovered the miniature world of pathogens. Although the vaccine ‘tuberculin’, which he presented as a cure in 1890, was ineffective and led to a scandal, he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine ‘in recognition of his experiments and discoveries in the field of tuberculosis’ in 1905. And quite rightly, as it was also on the basis of Koch’s observations that an effective vaccine was developed in 1921.
Role model to the present day
Five years after the internationally recognised award was presented, Robert Koch died of heart failure at the age of 66 in 1905. However, his research continues to shape medicine to this day. His findings in the field of hygiene were groundbreaking for modern surgery and, even today, Koch’s rules are still used to define when a parasite is a pathogen. And did you know that Robert Koch also acted as a mentor to medical icons such as Paul Ehrlich and Emil von Behring, who jointly developed vaccines against tetanus and polio? It’s no wonder that people speak of a veritable ‘Koch school’.
If you’re curious now about the life’s work of the famous doctor, we invite you to explore the traces he has left in the present day: Koch lent his name to Germany’s national centre for healthcare, the Robert Koch Institute, the Robert Koch Foundation, which annually presents one of Germany’s most renowned medical awards – and, naturally, to roads and squares throughout Germany. What’s more, monuments in many places around the world remind us of his work – including in his birthplace of Clausthal, of course, where a bust in front of his home honours the town’s famous son.