Emil Von Behring: “Savior of Children”

Contributed by Alan Lam, Class of 2019

The year is 1890 and tetanus continues to tighten its grip amidst the populace. Everyone was vulnerable to this disease and in particular children. With no cure, the disease reaped one out of ten victims.2 This disease was widely known as lockjaw for its modality of tightening the muscles. This process begins in the upper jaw and gradually advances to the rest of the body.3 Eventually, the contraction of muscles would fracture the very bones that support the body.4 The disease was a torment to the body and mind as it idled for weeks, causing the victims to suffer before leaving them paralyzed in pain or culminating in death.5

Another disease during this period known as diphtheria further preyed heavily upon children resulting in the death of half of those in contact with the disease.6 Complications from diphtheria led to blockage of the airway, damage to the heart muscle, and damage to nerve tissues resulting in paralysis and lung infections.7

Fortunately, 1890 was also the year in which tetanus and diphtheria would be rivaled with the promise of a vaccine.8 During this year, Emil Von Behring, would produce a working antitoxin to dismantle both tetanus and diphtheria. The modality in which the bacteria were able to cause disease was well known at the time. Tetanus and diphtheria are caused by bacteria Clostridium tetani and Corynebacterium diphtheria respectively.3 9 Both diseases relied on the ability of the bacteria to produce toxins in the body.10 This concept of toxins in the body became the focal point of Emil Von Behring’s research. During his experiments, Behring established that toxins are transferable between animals.11 This insight became the foundation for an antitoxin to tetanus and diphtheria. The technique of transferring blood serum of treated animals allowed Behring to design an antitoxin that would serve as a cure to both tetanus and diphtheria. Antitoxin treatments would ultimately evolve to become modern day vaccines. The diseases of tetanus and diphtheria is not just a relic of the past. These diseases still plague humanity today and thereupon antitoxins are still used today in the form of Tdap (tetanus diphtheria and pertussis) vaccines.

Emil von Behring’s work became the salvation from the death and suffering caused by the diseases of tetanus and diphtheria that plagued humanity for centuries. In recognition of Behring’s achievement in medicine, he was awarded the first “Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1901” for the discovery of antitoxins to treat tetanus and diphtheria.12 Furthermore, Behring has been revered as a “saviour of children”, considering diphtheria had claimed the lives of half the children who had the disease.13

The discovery of the antitoxin by Emil von Behring has historical significance, but also encompasses modern relevance. Behring has pioneered a novel approach to vaccines by adopting the use of antitoxins. These methods are still utilized today to produce vaccines that curtail tetanus and diphtheria. Behring has contributed remarkably to the pharmaceutical industry by adding two more vaccines to its repertoire. Furthermore, Behring’s antitoxin would grant pharmacists the ability to save lives in America by administering Tdap vaccinations in pharmacies to millions of Americans each year.


  1. Emil von Behring – Biographical. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1901/behring-bio.html.
  2. Kantha SS. A centennial review; the 1890 tetanus antitoxin paper of von Behring and Kitasato and the related developments. Keio J Med. 1991;40(1):35-39. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2046211. Accessed September 24, 2016.
  3. Pinkbook | Tetanus | Epidemiology of Vaccine Preventable Diseases | CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/tetanus.html.
  4. Tetanus | Kid-friendly Fact Sheet | Lockjaw | CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/tetanus/about/bam-villain-for-kids-fs.html.
  5. Tetanus Shot, Symptoms, and Treatment. http://www.medicinenet.com/tetanus/article.htm.
  6. Diphtheria | About | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/diphtheria/about/index.html.
  7. Diphtheria | Complications | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/diphtheria/about/complications.html.
  8. Vaccine History: Developments by Year | The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. http://www.chop.edu/centers-programs/vaccine-education-center/vaccine-history/developments-by-year#.V-gMp5MrJp8.
  9. Pinkbook | Diphtheria | Epidemiology of Vaccine Preventable Diseases | CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/dip.html.
  10. Committee I of M (US) VS, Stratton KR, Howe CJ, Richard B. Johnston J. Diphtheria and Tetanus Toxoids. 1994.
  11. Emil von Behring: The Founder of Serum Therapy. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1901/behring-article.html.
  12. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1901. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1901/.
  13. saviour of children – hiscistories. http://www.hiscistories.co.uk/index.php/tag/saviour-of-children/.




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