Robert Koch, a German scientist who developed “many of the basic principles and techniques of modern bacteriology,” inspiring modern “microbe-hunters,” is the subject of the December 10, 2017 Google Doodle.
The winner of the Nobel Prize, Koch dedicated his life “to studying germs – some of the tiniest of living organisms on Earth – and how they cause infectious diseases,” reports Google, which created a Google Doodle to honor Koch that features potato slices. “Today’s Doodle illustrates potato slices – the original media he used to isolate pure bacterial cells to help with his research. Koch experimented with potato slices until his assistant, Julius Petri, invented the Petri dish (also depicted in the Doodle, and bearing Koch’s image),” according to Google.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Koch’s Work Saved Countless Lives
Before Koch’s work, it wasn’t commonly accepted that germs caused disease. He’s also responsible for identifying the bacteria for a host of dangerous ailments. “Countless lives have been saved thanks to his role in proving the revolutionary idea that germs cause diseases, and in identifying the bacterium for anthrax, cholera, and tuberculosis,” wrote Google.
According to a Pulitzer Prize biography on him, “In 1870 he volunteered for service in the Franco-Prussian war and from 1872 to 1880 he was District Medical Officer for Wollstein. It was here that he carried out the epoch-making researches which placed him at one step in the front rank of scientific workers.”
His first project involved anthrax, which, according to the biography, “was, at that time, prevalent among the farm animals in the Wollstein district and Koch, although he had no scientific equipment and was cut off entirely from libraries and contact with other scientific workers, embarked, in spite of the demands made on him by his busy practice, on a study of this disease. His laboratory was the 4-roomed flat that was his home, and his equipment, apart from the microscope given to him by his wife, he provided for himself.”
Koch took this much farther, creating cultures of the bacilli, and demonstrating how they were able to replicate. He documented how the disease was transmitted. He moved on to other ailments, building on the work of Louis Pasteur. “Pasteur was convinced that microbes caused diseases in humans but his work on cholera had failed. He was never able to directly link one microbe with the disease. Koch succeeded in doing this,” reported History Learning Site.
2. Koch Was Awarded the Nobel Prize
Google chose December 10 as the day to honor Koch with a Google Doodle because that’s the day in 1905 that “the German physician and microbiologist…was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.” According to Brittanica.com, “He discovered the anthrax disease cycle (1876) and the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis (1882) and cholera (1883).”
However, it was “for his discoveries in regard to tuberculosis” that “he received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1905.” According to Brittanica, “Koch concentrated his efforts on the study of tuberculosis, with the aim of isolating its cause. Although it was suspected that tuberculosis was caused by an infectious agent, the organism had not yet been isolated and identified. By modifying the method of staining, Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus and established its presence in the tissues of animals and humans suffering from the disease.”
3. Koch Is Credited With Discovering a Golden Age of Microbiology
Koch is considered instrumental not only for his own work but also because of the other prominent scientists it guided. “By developing many of the basic principles and techniques of modern bacteriology, he inspired a new generation of scientists and ‘microbe-hunters,’ ushering in a Golden Age of bacteriology,” reported Google. “During this Golden Age, scientists discovered the microorganisms responsible for causing twenty-one different diseases.”
“As soon as the right method was found, discoveries came as easily as ripe apples from a tree,” Koch said, according to Google. He was not regarded as an “eloquent speaker,” according to Brittanica, but his contributions to science are now widely recognized. “Koch was nevertheless by example, demonstration, and precept one of the most effective of teachers, and his numerous pupils—from the entire Western world and Asia—were the creators of the new era of bacteriology… Long before his death, his place in the history of science was universally recognized,” Brittanica reports.
4. Robert Koch Was the Son of a Mining Engineer Who Taught Himself to Read at Age Five
Robert Koch was born on December 11, 1843, in Clausthal, Germany in the Upper Harz Mountains. “Koch came from a poor mining family and it took him a lot of determination to get a university place where he first studied mathematics and natural science and then studied medicine,” reported History Learning Site.
According to the biography for him on the Pulitzer Prize website, he was “the son of a mining engineer” who “astounded his parents at the age of five by telling them that he had, with the aid of the newspapers, taught himself to read, a feat which foreshadowed the intelligence and methodical persistence which were to be so characteristic of him in later life.” The biography says that he first expressed an interest in biology in high school, which was called the Gymnasium.
In 1862, Koch “went to the University of Göttingen to study medicine,” according to the biography, and it was here that his life’s work began to take off. “The Professor of Anatomy was Jacob Henle and Koch was, no doubt, influenced by Henle’s view, published in 1840, that infectious diseases were caused by living, parasitic organisms. After taking his M.D. degree in 1866, Koch went to Berlin for six months of chemical study and there came under the influence of Virchow. In 1867 he settled, after a period as Assistant in the General Hospital at Hamburg, in general practice, first at Langenhagen and soon after, in 1869, at Rackwitz, in the Province of Posen,” said the bio.
5. Koch Developed New Methods That Changed the World Forever
According to the Pulitzer Prize biography, Robert Koch “invented new methods – ‘Reinkulturen’ – of cultivating pure cultures of bacteria on solid media such as potato, and on agar kept in the special kind of flat dish invented by his colleague Petri, which is still in common use. He also developed new methods of staining bacteria which made them more easily visible and helped to identify them.”
Steve Blevins and Michael Bronze, in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, wrote that “the magnitude of Koch’s achievement, well recognized by his contemporaries, appears no less extraordinary today. His discoveries ushered in a ‘golden age’ of scientific discovery and a new era of public health. Today, his postulates are part of the medical vernacular and his techniques of microscopy are used throughout the world. Almost every step in the development of bacteriology bears his mark, from artificial culture to disinfection and sterilization.”
According to the article, when a therapeutic approach to tuberculosis didn’t materialize as expected, he went through a period of difficulty, divorcing his wife, and later embarked on a life of travel. “A long period of international travel ensued. In Italy, Indonesia, and New Guinea, he studied malaria, establishing guidelines for its prevention,” the article noted. “In Trier, he studied typhoid fever, elucidating the ‘carrier state’. In India, he studied plague; in East Africa, sleeping sickness. At the invitation of the British Government, he visited Rhodesia (now South Africa) to study rinderpest.34,35 There he also studied malaria, sleeping sickness, horse-sickness, and relapsing fever. In 1908, he traveled to the USA to visit relatives and to raise money for the study of tuberculosis.” He died in 1910 at the age 0f 67 of heart disease in Germany.