This 'bacteria hunter' discovered the causes of tuberculosis, anthrax, and cholera

Robert Koch, a founding father of microbiology, used hands-on experiments in the 1800s to find the bacteria behind three of history's deadliest diseases.

Robert Koch peers into a microscope in his laboratory around 1900.
SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG PHOTO/AGE FOTOSTOCK

Whether called phthisis (Greek for “wasting away”), the white plague, or consumption, tuberculosis has been plaguing humanity all over the world for thousands of years. Texts describe the disease in India 3,300 years ago and in China a millennium later. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates called it “the most considerable of the diseases which then prevailed.” In 1680 the English writer John Bunyan ranked tuberculosis among other diseases as “the captain of all these men of death.”

In 19th-century Europe and the United States, tuberculosis epidemics were raging, killing an estimated one out of seven people. Those infected seemed to waste away, as if consumed. “Consumption” so traumatized society that its ravages were featured in some of the great works of art from the time, including Puccini’s opera La Bohème, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, and Edvard Munch’s painting “The Sick Child.”

The fight against tuberculosis reached a turning point on March 24, 1882, in a small meeting room of the Berlin Physiological Society. A 38-year-old doctor and microbiologist named Robert Koch methodically and in great detail used more than 200 microscopic preparations to identify the bacterium that causes tuberculosis: tubercle bacillus. It was the latest discovery in an astonishing career that would land Koch a Nobel Prize, honoring him as one of the most effective warriors in humanity’s long fight to curb infectious diseases.

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