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Robert Koch: A Biography of a Scientist Series

Updated on August 10, 2014
Robert Koch
Robert Koch

Early Life

Today we are living a much healthier and longer life thanks to the works of Robert Koch in the field that is now called bacteriology. Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch was born on December 11,1843, in Klausthal (or Clausthal-Zellerfeld) in the Hanover Kingdom of Germany into a family with thirteen children. He was part of a third-generation family of German mining officials there.

During his childhood Koch exhibited a high level of curiosity. He collected and studied plants, insects, and fossils. He even prepared skeletons of large animals. Later Koch at the age of 19 started studying medicine and natural science at the University of Gottingen under Jacob Henle, a professor of anatomy, who was the originator of the scientific germ theory of disease. Koch graduated from the university in 1866 with the highest honors, the same year another famous scientist, Louis Pasteur, started his experiments that prove that microbes did not appear spontaneously from nothing. After his graduation Koch spent six years in Berlin for chemical studies and spent six years working in various hospitals and privately in four East Prussia towns. Then he volunteered for medical service in the Franco-Prussian War and later became district medical officer in Wollstein, Prussian Poland.

Robert Koch's Accomplishments

By now Koch had married Emmy Fraats and had a daughter. He began working in a homemade lab situated next to his examining room with a microscope he received as a gift from his wife to study microorganisms. He also had another crucial lab equipment for his research called a microtome used to cut thin slices of tissues for staining purposes, before putting them on a slide for microscopic examination. It would be in this small lab where Koch would make some of most significant accomplishments in bacteriology.

Anthrax Bacillus
Anthrax Bacillus

In the course of his research, Koch developed a technique by which he spread a liquid gelatin on a glass slide to produce a transparent solid medium for the isolation of pure cultures. Next he dried the smears of bacteria for staining. This technique is still used today in microbiology labs worldwide. This new technique helped him produced the first high-quality photomicrographs of stained bacteria.

Koch’s first significant accomplishment in the emerging field of bacteriology came during his investigation on the transmission of the anthrax bacillus (disease causing bacteria of anthrax) between animals and humans. The bacillus was transmitted by eating uncooked meat or breathing in airborne spores from contaminated products such as wool. This was a serious problem for farmers at the time because this bacteria would disappear and then re-emerge in the cows. No one knew why or how this was happening. Koch set out to solve this problem by first observing the bacteria under various environmental conditions such temperature, moisture level, and oxygen level. He discovered that the anthrax bacillus survived for long periods of time by producing spores called endospores through germination. His work was replicated and published in 1876 by Ferdinand Cohn. In 1877 Koch published another paper on a different slide preparation technique that led him to the isolation of Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax is the disease caused by Bacillus anthracis bacteria.

First photomicrograph even taken of a microorganism, anthrax bacillus. Photo taken by Robert Koch.
First photomicrograph even taken of a microorganism, anthrax bacillus. Photo taken by Robert Koch.
A microphotograph of mycobacterium tuberculosis
A microphotograph of mycobacterium tuberculosis

In 1881 Koch published a set of four basic criteria known as Koch’s postulates detailing methods for conducting laboratory studies confirming the cause of infectious diseases. Koch’s postulates are still followed by pathologists during their investigation of infectious diseases today. Also In that year another opportunity for Koch to apply his postulates to a misunderstood disease came up. Tuberculosis was a prevalent disease at the time and many scientists thought it was a hereditary disease. Koch proved that tuberculosis is an infectious disease based on the results of his experiment since the data met the four criteria for infectious diseases. He published his findings in 1882.

Even though Koch was successful in discovering the cause of tuberculosis, he spent the remainder of his life trying to develop a vaccine for it but was unsuccessful. It would not be until the mid 1900s before a vaccine was developed to treat tuberculosis. Koch did not know at the time that new strains of tuberculosis were appearing and that these new strains developed resistance to the vaccine he tried so long and hard to develop. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1905 for his work on tuberculosis.

Malaria destroying red blood cells
Malaria destroying red blood cells

Koch continued to work on other infectious diseases such malaria, diphtheria and cholera until his death on May 27, 1910, from a heart attack he experienced on April 9, 1910, three days after a lecture he gave on tuberculosis at the Berlin Academy of Science .

© 2012 Melvin Porter


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    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Alma, thanks for your comments. Robert Koch has done more than I can mention here, however, his contribution to science made a significant impact on the quality of health and our longevity.

    • Alma Cabase profile image

      Alma Cabase 

      7 years ago from Philippines


      I never heard about such a great man of science. Thank you for this informative hub!




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