Robert Koch (1843-1910)

Robert Koch (11 December 1843 - 27 May 1910) was a celebrated German physician and pioneering microbiologist. As the founder of modern bacteriology, he is known for his role in identifying the specific causative agents of tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax and for giving experimental support for the concept of infectious disease.

Robert Koch was the man who, building on the work of Pasteur and Lister, set bacteriology on its way to being a modern science. He discovered the causative organisms of anthrax, septicæmia, tuberculosis and cholera. He was christened Heinrich Herrmann Robert but dropped the first two names.

After studying medicine at Göttingen and a brief spell in Hamburg, he set up in general practice near Hanover, subsequently moving to Wollstein (now Wolsztyn) as Medical Officer. It was here that he started his work on anthrax. Having published the results in 1876 Koch decided to investigate septicæmia and followed that by studying tuberculosis. He demonstrated the bacillus at the International Medical Congress in London in 1881 and published his work at a meeting in Berlin the following year.

However a pandemic of cholera threatened, so the German government appointed Koch a Privy Councillor, set up a commission under his presidency and sent it to Egypt with the result that his paper on tuberculosis was not published until 1884. The cholera epidemic was fading when Koch arrived in Egypt so, although he suspected the comma vibrio, he went on to India to confirm his suspicions and see that it conformed to 'Koch's postulates', namely: (a) that the causative organism was present in every case of the disease; (b) it could be cultured outside the body; (c) inoculation of the culture would produce the disease in a susceptible animal; and (d) that the organism could be found in that animal. Unfortunately no animal other than man was found to be susceptible to cholera.

In 1885 Koch was appointed Professor of Hygiene at the University of Berlin and Director of the new Institute of Hygiene. He returned to the study of tuberculosis and developed a serum called tuberculin which he claimed would not only diagnose the early stages of pulmonary TB but also cure it. This last claim was unfounded and, as Koch was secretive over the method of the serum's production, its use as a diagnostic was discredited by his claims that it was a cure.

Koch later worked on malaria in New Guinea and Italy (much to the annoyance of the Italian researchers), went to South Africa to study rinderpest, and back to India to study plague. He returned to Africa to work on trypanosomiasis and in the early years of this century he commanded a colossal fee from the British South Africa Company and various southern African colonial governments to investigate (unsuccessfully) East Coast fever in cattle.

His final trip was to the United States and Japan but his intention to circumnavigate the globe was foiled by the German government's demand that he return to the United States as an official delegate to the International Tuberculosis Congress in Washington in 1908. Koch was not pleased but, despite having retired, felt obliged to comply. He returned to Germany at the end of that year and died eighteen months later.