Paul Ehrlich Biography

Instructor: Thomas Higginbotham

Tom has taught math / science at secondary & post-secondary, and a K-12 school administrator. He has a B.S. in Biology and a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction.

Paul Ehrlich (1854 - 1915) was a German scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1908. His work in immunology, chemotherapy, and cell-staining techniques still inform scientists' work today. In this lesson, learn more about this colossal scientific figure.

Ehrlich's Early Life

If you've ever stained specimen slides in science class or in a lab, thank Paul Ehrlich. If you have benefited from either vaccines or antibody therapy, thank Paul Ehrlich. The scope of this Nobel Prize winning scientist's body of work is as astounding as its legacy is resonant.

Paul Ehrlich was born in Strehlen, Germany in 1854 in a well to do family. He finished his medical training in 1878, after which he was appointed to an elite Berlin hospital. From there, he began his research work. Somewhere along the way he picked up those quirks it seems all the most famous scientists have - smoking dozens of cigars daily, not suffering fools lightly, and impulsively interrupting colleague's conversations.

The hardest part about writing about Paul Ehrlich's work is figuring out where to begin.

Tissue Stains

Any microbiologist or biochemist knows that one of the most important tools in their arsenal is a full complement of dyes to illuminate those parts of microbes that would otherwise remain hidden. Imagine looking at a drop of blood under a microscope. You might be able to see chunks and shapes, but they would all be red. Ehlich is credited with developing methods for preparing microscope slides and with creating different dyes that illuminate different cellular parts that allowed scientists to clearly differentiate types of cells in blood for the first time.

These types included white blood cells, red blood cells, and mast cells. This differentiation provided a huge advancement in the tools for the field of hematology (i.e, the study of blood). He is also widely credited with notable contributions to development of what is still today's most common bacterial staining technique, the Gram stain.

His hematological stains just scratch the surface of his discoveries and creativity in finding ways to illuminate different parts of cells. It also formed the foundation for many of his later discoveries. Specifically, the fact that certain stains adhered to particular cellular parts, convinced him that understanding the chemistry of stains was key to understanding cellular biology. Among the lines of thinking he carried from his work on stains:

  1. Chemicals binding to specific parts meant that once the affinity of cellular parts to particular stains could be mapped, specific therapeutic remedies might be targeted based on that map. This was a foundation for the field of chemotherapy.
  • There existed the possibility to create specific chemicals to target specific cellular parts, again, as a potential inroad to therapeutic remedies. This was a foundation for the field of immunology.

Ehrlich's Work in Immunology

His line of work in immunology is credited with him sharing the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1908. Specifically, his work helped him develop the side-chain theory. In the 1890s, he demonstrated that mice could be 'immunized' from poisons by exposing them to low doses of a particular poison and gradually increasing the dose concentration. Months later, the mice were still protected against the harms of the particular poison.

Further, he demonstrated that this protection could be conveyed through mother's milk, by having the 'protected' mice wet-nurse unrelated, untreated baby mice, who were then protected themselves.

His interest in immunology was certainly impacted by his own experience with tuberculosis, which he contracted to the mid-1880s. He received some tuberculin antitoxin, which. along with a stay at a sanitorium, cured him of his illness, despite his 20+ cigars a day habit. This impelled his curiosity in the idea of toxins and antitoxins, and he worked along others in developing antitoxins to diphtheria and tetanus, diseases induced by bacterial toxins. Ehrlich did not know the specific mechanism by which the antitoxins worked, but in concept, it helped him further his side-chain theory.

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