Drawing: Robert Koch in his laboratory
Infection Prevention Heroes

Robert Koch (1843 – 1910)

Founding father of bacteriology and microbiology

Robert Koch is widely known for the discovery of the tuberculosis pathogen. But his contribution to infection prevention is far greater: his research, discoveries and innovations were groundbreaking in terms of containing epidemics and fighting diseases.
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Moving up the ladder

From country doctor to head of the Imperial Health Department in Berlin

He devoted his entire life to researching pathogens and their prevention: Robert Koch is rightly considered a pioneer of medicine. Koch achieved global fame through his research into the development and transmission of anthrax, tuberculosis, cholera, plague, malaria, sleeping sickness and bovine plague. His findings saved the lives of millions of people - to this day.

As late as the middle of the 19th century, physicians assumed that "miasmas", toxic vapours from the soil, were responsible for the spread of diseases and epidemics. A simple country doctor in Wollstein/Posen was to prove them wrong.

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Achievements and discoveries

Development of scientific methods

In his makeshift home laboratory, the hard-working Robert Koch devoted himself to researching the anthrax pathogen. His discoveries and technical innovations led the way in isolating pathogens and making them visible. The discovery of pure cultures and the development of scientific examination methods made the targeted cultivation of bacterial colonies in culture media possible in the first place.1

Koch used special culture media and staining techniques with which he was able to detect the rod-coloured anthrax bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) in 1876. By inoculation, he succeeded in transferring the pathogen to other test animals and isolating it again. A revolutionary discovery with which he proved that a microorganism could be the trigger for infectious diseases.2 Robert Koch's discovery caused a great sensation. The scientist also developed microphotography in 1877.

Koch gained further recognition among experts for his research results on wound infections, which he published in 1878 in the book "Über die Aetiologie der Wundinfectionskrankheiten" (On the etiology of wound infections). In 1880, the scientist moved to the Imperial Health Department in Berlin, where he further developed bacteriological methodology: Koch refined the cultivation of bacterial cultures using special culture media and staining techniques and also developed the basics of disinfection and sterilisation.

Thanks to the further developed methods, Robert Koch was able to detect and isolate the tubercle bacillus (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) in 1882. This groundbreaking discovery, which he presented in his famous lecture on the "Aetiology of Tuberculosis" to the Berlin Physiological Society, made him world famous overnight.3

Robert Koch in The Aetiology of Tuberculosis (1882)
"All these facts considered together justify the statement that the bacilli occurring in the tuberculous substances are not only companions of the tuberculous process, but the cause of it, and that we have before us in the bacilli the actual tubercle virus."4
Causes and modes of the spread of tuberculosis (TB), which at that time killed about one seventh of the population in the German Reich, had not been proven up to that time.5 In 1905, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of the pathogen.
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Significance for infection prevention today

Introduction of hygiene measures

On a research trip to India in 1883, Koch was able to detect the cholera pathogen and establish that the infection was transmitted through water. The preventive measures he developed here were to save thousands of lives during the cholera epidemic in Hamburg in 1892/1893: The hygiene expert implemented the boiling of drinking water, disinfection of laundry and homes, and quarantine.
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However, Robert Koch not only celebrated successes. His tuberculosis vaccine, presented in 1890, proved not only ineffective but even dangerous: many of the patients treated with tuberculin died, so the drug was withdrawn again. Although the "miracle cure" did not fulfil the intended function, tuberculin was rediscovered two decades later as a diagnostic agent and is still used today to detect tuberculosis disease.5
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Did you know?

In his search for reliable disinfectants in hospitals, Robert Koch proved that the carbolic acid previously used for disinfection destroyed bacteria but not their spores, which caused a high mortality rate due to infections after operations. He identified iodine, bromine, chlorine, sublimate and potassium soap as chemically useful. He also found that heat was not suitable for sterilising surgical instruments - instead he used hot steam.6
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The Robert Koch Institute

From 1891 to 1904, Koch headed the "Royal Prussian Institute for Infectious Diseases", which was founded especially for him and developed into the globally recognised biomedical research institute that still bears his name today: the Robert Koch Institute. The famous scientist Robert Koch died in Baden-Baden on 27 May 1910. His discoveries and research made him a hero of infection prevention.

Robert Koch-Institut. 1901 bis 1910: Erregern auf der Spur. https://www.rki.de/DE/Content/Institut/Geschichte/Bildband_Salon/1901-1910.html (accessed 16.07.2021)
Ärzteblatt. Robert Koch (1843–1910): Begründer einer neuen Wissenschaft. https://www.aerzteblatt.de/archiv/75471/Robert-Koch-(1843-1910)-Begruender-einer-neuen-Wissenschaft (accessed 16.07.2021)
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Mikroben schachmatt gesetzt – Forscher rüsten Tuberkulose-Impfstoff nach. https://www.mpg.de/1248244/BIOMAX_19 (accessed 16.07.2021)
Koch R. (1882). Die Ätiologie der Tuberkulose, 1912 (1882). S. 442. https://edoc.rki.de/bitstream/handle/176904/5163/428-445.pdf (accessed 16.07.2021)
Robert Koch-Institut. Robert Koch: Der Mitbegründer der Mikrobiologie. https://www.rki.de/DE/Content/Institut/Geschichte/robert_koch_node.html (accessed 16.07.2021)
Dieterich E. (1919). Desnfizieren und Desinfektionsmittel. In: Dieterich K. (eds) Neues Pharmazeutisches Manual. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-3-662-36423-9_25 (accessed 16.07.2021)

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