Emil Adolf Behring: Biography & Contribution to Microbiology

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson goes over the life and principal work of Emil Adolf Behring. You'll learn where he was from, what field he worked in, and how he helped save the lives of countless people.

Emil Adolf Behring

Not many people are awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in anything. Even fewer were awarded the very first Nobel Prize in one category or another. One of those people happened to be Emil Adolf Behring, a German bacteriologist. Let's learn more about his life and contributions to science in this lesson.


Emil Adolf von Behring was born on March 15th, 1854 in Hansdorf, West Prussia in what is now Poland. Prussia, by the way, was a Germanic state back in Behring's day.

Behring was the eldest son, and one of 13 children, born to a schoolmaster by the name of August Georg Behring. His mom was the elder Behring's second wife, Augustine Zech.

Behring's dad wanted little Emil to follow in his footsteps and become a teacher or, perhaps, a minister. However, Behring realized relatively early on that he was interested in medicine. He eventually wound up at the Friedrich Wilhelms Institute in Berlin, where he basically signed up to be a military surgeon in the famous Prussian Army for ten years, in exchange for a free medical education.

This was important for Behring because he knew his family couldn't afford to pay for his university studies. After all, they had 15 mouths to feed! So, Behring accepted the deal and received his MD in 1878. He passed his board exams a couple of years later and went on to serve as a physician in the Prussian Army.

Emil Behring
Emil Behring

In 1889, Behring completed his 10-year stint with the Prussian Army Medical Corps and began to work at the Institute for Hygiene at the University of Berlin, under the directorship of Robert Koch, a prominent German scientist. It would be here that Behring would go on to achieve lasting fame, as explained in the next section.

In 1894, Behring became the Professor of Hygiene at Halle and, a year later, became director of the Institute of Hygiene at the Philipps University of Marburg. In 1896, Behring married Else Spinola and the two of them would go on to have six sons.

BY 1901, Behring's health was in serious decline, and he couldn't even continue his lectures on a regular basis. That same year, however, Behring would go on to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the first person to do so.

Behring passed away on March 31st, 1917 in Marburg, Germany.

Contributions to Microbiology

The Nobel Prize Behring won was for his work in serum therapy. Serum is the part of your blood that is devoid of proteins and cells that help your blood clot. Serum contains things like antibodies, protein molecules that help neutralize, destroy, or target for destruction potentially dangerous substances or entities inside a person's body.

In particular, it was Behring's work with serum and the disease Diphtheria, which ultimately helped him win the Nobel Prize. Diphtheria is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae. The bacteria that causes this disease may produce a terrible toxin which can damage multiple parts of the body. Left untreated, this infection is often fatal.

A child affected by Diphtheria.
A child affected by Diphtheria

Now you can better understand Behring's most important contribution to microbiology. While at the Institute for Hygiene, Behring began to study the interactions between blood serum and toxins. Behring and his co-workers realized that if you took the serum from animals immune to the toxin produced by a species of bacteria, and then injected that serum into animals who weren't immune to the toxin, the latter would be rendered immune to the toxin as well.

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