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Behring, Emil (Adolf) von

antitoxin disease toxin diphtheria

[ bay ring] (1854–1917) German bacteriologist: co-discoverer of diphtheria antitoxin.

Behring studied at Berlin and after qualifying in medicine joined the Army Medical Corps. In 1889 he became assistant to , and from 1895 he was professor of hygiene at Marburg. It was already known that the bacteria causing tetanus produced a chemical toxin that was responsible for most of the illness of the patient; the toxin could be obtained from a culture. In 1890 Behring worked with and showed that blood serum from an animal with tetanus could, if injected into other animals, give them a temporary resistance to the disease and so contained an antitoxin. Similar anti-toxic immunity was found with diphtheria, then a major killer of children; this part of his work was done with . A diphtheria antitoxin to protect human patients was soon made (best from the blood serum of an infected horse) and found to be protective, and also to be useful for those already having the disease; it was possibly first used on an infected child on Christmas night, 1891, in Berlin.

Behring was awarded the first Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for this work, in 1901. In 1913 he showed that a mixture of toxin and antitoxin gives more lasting immunity than the antitoxin alone, and later methods for preventing the disease used this method until it in turn gave way to the use of toxoid (which is toxin treated with formalin, introduced by G Ramon (1886–1963) in 1923). Since then, large-scale immunization of young children has given good control over the disease.

Much honoured, Behring ranks high in medical science; but he was always a lone researcher with few pupils, with much of his energy spent in disputes and in his unsuccessful search for a vaccine against tuberculosis.

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