Koch to the rescue

On March 24, 1882 Robert Koch identified the tubercle bacillus and found a cure for the deadly disease.

Published - March 23, 2017 05:00 pm IST

ROBERT KOCH: A discovery that helped millions.

ROBERT KOCH: A discovery that helped millions.

Known by many names — consumption, phthisis, scrofula, Pott’s disease, White Plague — tuberculosis (TB), according to historians was discovered 9000 years ago. A potentially fatal and contagious disease it is an infection of the lungs, caused by a bacterial micro organism, the tubercle bacillus or Mycobacterium tuberculosis .

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Europe was badly hit by this disease. Later, the disease became widespread in the U.S. and reached epidemic proportions in Europe and North America during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is spread by droplet infection, meaning when a TB patient exhaled, coughed, or sneezed, tiny droplets of fluid containing tubercle bacilli were released into the air. This mist, or aerosol could then be taken into the nasal passages and lungs by any person nearby. Once inhaled, tubercle bacilli reached the small breathing sacs in the lungs and could start multiplying within these cells.

In 1882, one in every seven deaths in Europe was caused by TB. With antibiotics unknown, there weren’t many options left except to keep them isolated.

In 1859, Herman Brehmer, a German physician, opened a sanatorium in Gobersdorf, Austria. He emphasised on a regimen of rest, a rich diet, and carefully supervised exercise. In 1865, Jean-Antoine Villemin, a French physicist, proved that this bacteria could be transmissible.


On March 24, 1882, microbiologist Robert Koch, a German physicist, discovered the tubercle bacillus.

Koch was born on December 11, 1843 and is known for his role in identifying the agents causing tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax. He had earlier worked as a surgeon in the Franco-Prussian War, and from 1885 to 1890 served as an administrator and professor at Berlin University.

Hermann Heinrich Robert Koch made his presentation, Die Aetiologie der Tuberculose , to the Berlin Physiological Society. Koch brought his entire laboratory to describe how he had invented a new staining method. Using microscopes, test tubes with cultures, glass slides with stained bacteria, dyes, reagents, glass jars with tissue samples he showed the audience tissue dissections from guinea pigs infected with tuberculous and the lungs of infected apes and the brains and lungs of humans that died from blood-borne tuberculosis. He proved that the disease that had developed in the experimentally-infected guinea pigs was the same as the ones found in monkeys and humans.

It is said that when Koch ended his lecture there was complete silence. No questions, no congratulations, no applause. The audience was stunned, and all they did was get up and look into the microscopes to see the bacteria for themselves. Koch not only presented demonstrations of the tubercle bacillus he had identified but put forward his postulates. Even today, these are often referred to as the Koch-Henle postulates while referring to cases. Koch’s contributions to bacteriology earned him the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1905 for his research in tuberculosis.

Koch made a presentation to the Tenth International Medical Conference in Berlin in 1890, in which he said he had isolated a substance from the tubercle bacilli that could treat the bacteria found in a living body without any harm to the body. This substance was called tuberculin and was used to treat tuberculosis.

He passed away at 66. Today, a large marble statue of Koch stands in a small park known as Robert Koch Platz, just north of the Charity Hospital, in the Mitte section of Berlin, Germany.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.