How Robert Koch Changed Physiology Forever

While there are many outstanding men and women who have contributed to advances in science and medicine, there are some who have made discoveries or achievements that have changed the face of their field. One such person is Robert Koch, who is often referred to as the father of bacteriology.

The achievement for which he is most famous is for discovering which bacterium causes tuberculosis. This was such a notable achievement that he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1905. He was also the first person to discover how to study bacteria and he is the person responsible for discovering the bacterium that causes cholera and anthrax.

In the early years of his research into bacteria, he isolated bacteria cultures using potato slices before pioneering the use of Petri dishes for such studies. He was also the first to use agar for studying bacteria cultures, and this is still used more than a century later. It is only because of Koch’s work that the scientists of today have such a good understanding of bacteria.

Modern epidemiology has been shaped by the work of Kock as he devised the four main criteria for linking diseases to pathogens. The first rule that he listed was that in every case of a disease, there must be the same organism present.

Second, he said that the organism must be grown in a pure culture after separation from the host. Third, the organisms grown in the pure culture must be inoculated into a healthy laboratory animal and cause the same disease.

Finally, the organism is isolated from the inoculated animal. If there is a link between the pathogen and the disease, then the organism removed from an inoculated animal needs identifying as the same organism that was originally isolated from the diseased host.

Koch used these criteria himself in many of his studies and they are what helped him to discover the bacteria responsible for anthrax in 1876. Using the same criteria, he also discovered the bacteria that causes cholera in 1884 and the bacterium that leads to tuberculosis in 1882. His discoveries led to other scientists using his model and discovering the bacteria responsible for many more diseases. This period around the turn of the 20th century then became known as the Golden Age of Bacteriology.

Koch’s work was so important because the prevention and cure of diseases are impossible to find if you do not know the cause. A disease that was of particular concern at that time was tuberculosis due to the scale of the deaths as a result of this disease. As Koch had already found the cause of tuberculosis, people were keen to find a cure.

In 1890, Koch had the news that people had been waiting for as he announced that he had discovered a cure for tuberculosis. This was a significant achievement within the field of bacteriology as tuberculosis was responsible for the death of at least one in eight people at that time.

Unfortunately, the cure was not all it seemed as Koch was overly enthusiastic and rushed it to the market. People continued to die, and live tuberculosis bacteria were found in their remains. This meant that what Koch had believed was a cure was not a cure at all.

When he was testing the potential cure, he predominantly used guinea pigs and only a few humans to test whether the cure would work. One of the humans on whom he tested the cure was his mistress who later agreed to marry him. The results of his testing showed that humans could suffer worse side effects to the treatment than guinea pigs. Despite this, he released the treatment onto the market, leading people to accuse him of a scam.

In 1906, Koch and his wife traveled to an area of Africa that was experiencing an epidemic of sleeping sickness. Koch’s responsibility was to find the cause of the disease, how it was spread, and ways in which it could be contained. He setup a camp and began experimenting with different drugs that could potentially cure the disease.

Unfortunately, some of the drugs had devastating results. Despite this, sufferers continued to flock to the camp. This was probably because they were not aware that they were taking part in an experiment. This is just one example of how ethics have changed in medical research since that time but that there was some value in the work that was done. Although there was the cost of human life, it changed the way research is undertake today and played a huge part in the progress made in many fields, including bacteriology.


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