This Day in Jewish History / Death of a Medical Pioneer

Paul Ehrlich was a prodigious researcher whose groundbreaking, theoretical work in immunology earned him the Nobel Prize in 1908.

August 20, 1915, is the date on which German medical pioneer Paul Ehrlich died. Ehrlich was one of those prodigious researchers who not only made key discoveries on the therapeutic level – he was involved in developing treatments for diphtheria and syphilis – but also was responsible for conceptual advances that changed how medical science understood critical processes involved in the way the body fights disease. For his theoretical work on discovering the basic concepts of immunology, Ehrlich was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, in 1908.

Paul Ehrlich was born on March 14, 1854, in the town of Strehlen, Germany, near Breslau (today in Poland). He was the second child of Ismar and Rosa Ehrlich. Ismar was a distiller and a collector for the royal lottery; he was also a leader of the town’s Jewish community.

Ehrlich studied medicine at several different German universities, and earned his doctorate in 1882 at the University of Leipzig. Even as a schoolboy, he had been interested in the way that different tissues absorb stains of different colors – a field to which he was introduced by a cousin, Karl Weigert – making their cells easier to see under the microscope. His first job out of school was in a lab at the Charite Hospital in Berlin, working on histology and dyes.

Throughout his career, Ehrlich was interested in the idea of agents – chemical or biological – that could target specific disease cells in the body without affecting other, healthy ones. Early on, Ehrlich worked on immunization, by which the body, exposed to small, controlled quantities of a toxin, developed a natural resistance to it, which would thereafter protect it against that same disease. He also observed that this immunity could be passed on in utero from a mother to her child.

In the 1890s, he worked with Emil Behring in developing a serum for treating diphtheria, but broke with his colleague when he concluded that Behring was working behind his back to deny him credit (and profits) for the treatment. In 1901, Behring alone won the first Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for the diphtheria cure.

Ehrlich’s own Nobel Prize was not long in coming, however. His work on the development of antibodies – his analysis of the “side-chain effect,” the chemical reaction that takes place between a serum and the toxin it is fighting, resulting in creation of the antibody – provided the basis for the field of immunology. Ilya Mechnikov, who shared the prize with Ehrlich, worked separately on similar questions in a Paris lab, and discovered the natural process of phagocytosis, another way that the body fights bacteria on the cellular level.

In 1909, while searching for a chemical compound of arsenic that would kill the microbe that caused sleeping sickness, Ehrlich and his young colleague Sahachiro Hata discovered by chance that one of the compounds (compound number 606) they were testing was effective against syphilis. No less important, it had no major side effects. This became the drug Salvarsan, which soon became the most-prescribed medication in the world, and which remained the preferred treatment for syphilis until the arrival of penicillin, in 1940.

Ehrlich called his concept, by which it should be possible to create compounds that could deliver specific disease-fighting toxins to the desired target, a “magische Kugel” – “magic bullet.” The beauty of the magic bullet is that it kills only the disease, without otherwise harming the patient.

One of Ehrilich’s friends and colleagues, August von Wassermann, who himself helped develop a clinical test for syphilis, described Ehrlich’s genius in the following manner: “In a scientific discussion with Ehrlich, one had the feeling that in his mind's eye he truly saw into the most profound secrets of the biological and chemical processes of cellular life, even if, at that particular moment, he was not yet able to provide experimental proof for his views. One instinctively sensed that this man's mental perception was generations ahead of the actual development of medicine – a pioneer and guide in the truest sense of the term.”

Ehrlich was only marginally involved in Jewish affairs, and it was with trepidation that Chaim Weizmann, a leader of the Zionist movement in Britain and a professional chemist, approached him in 1914 to ask for help in the establishment of a university in Jerusalem. Through a common friend, an appointment to visit Ehrlich at the Speyer Institute in Frankfurt was arranged. After receiving a fascinating tour of Ehrlich’s lab, Weizmann worked up the courage to explain to his host why he was there, telling him about the planned university. “'But why Jerusalem?’” Weizmann later recounted Ehrlich as asking him.

“I was off at last! I set out with considerable energy to explain why Jerusalem was
the one place in all the world where a Hebrew University could and ought to be established," Weizmann recalled. “Somehow I caught his interest, and my excitement rose as I saw that he was following my argument with increasing attention.”

Suddenly, Ehrlich stopped Weizmann. Pulling out his watch, he said to him, according to the visitor, “'You have kept me nearly an hour. Do you know that out there, in the corridor, there are counts, princes and ministers who are waiting to see me, and who will be happy if I give them 10 minutes of my time?’ He said it good-naturedly, and I replied,
‘Yes, Professor Ehrlich, but the difference between me and your other visitors is that they come to receive an injection from you, and I came to give you one.’”

Weizmann found himself invited back to Ehrlich’s home that evening, where he convinced him to join the founding committee of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When he died, the next year, Ehrlich also left money for the university.

Ehrlich was a habitual smoker of cigars – up to 25 a day. This may have contributed to the fatal stroke he suffered on August 20, 1915.

He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt. In the 1930s, when Nazi Germany did its best to efface the memory of Ehrlich from the collective memory, his widow, Hedwig Pinkus Ehrlich, emigrated to the United States. There, in 1940, she served as a consultant on the 1940 film biography of Ehrlich, “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet,” with Edward G. Robinson in the title role.

Hedwig Ehrlich died in 1948. The couple had two daughters.

Wikimedia Commons