Alone, bearded figure sits at a bench in his laboratory, bent over a microscope, concentrating intensely on the specimen under view. On either side the bench is littered with flasks, pipettes, jars, beakers, test tubes, bottles containing brightly coloured stains and shallow glass dishes. Such are his tools. He has no books to refer to for guidance; he is searching in an unexplored world – a world invisible to the naked eye, the world of germs. He has to create his own rules and techniques – techniques that today form the basis of modern diagnostic bacteriology – the detection and isolation of germs. The man is Doctor Robert Koch.
Louis Pasteur is often credited with being the founder of the science of bacteriology, but Robert Koch, too, must rank as a founder member of this modern and rapidly advancing science. He is regarded as the greatest pure bacteriologist.
In a period of little more than a decade he and his assistants discovered the causative organisms of no less than eleven diseases.
Robert Koch travelled extensively studying diseases such as cholera, malaria, and sleeping sickness in Egypt, New Guinea and Uganda respectively.
His first great discovery was made in 1876 when he isolated the anthrax bacillus, and showed that it was the cause of anthrax, a contagious disease of sheep and cattle, which can also affect man. Perhaps his most important contribution to bacteriology lay in his development of methods f growing or culturing bacteria, particularly that of using solid culture media such a agar-agar jelly. Robert Koch noted that the organisms in his cultures grew in clusters or colonies. After a time these became visible to the naked eye. He realised that the colonies were characteristic for particular organisms.
In 1882, using new staining methods, he discovered the bacillus that causes tuberculosis, a disease in which he showed great interest. A year later he discovered the comma-shaped germs causing cholera, also showing how disease was transmitted by drinking-water.
And institute for infectious diseases was built for Robert Koch in Berlin in 1891 – he had been appointed Professor of hygiene in the University of Berlin six years before. Many honours were bestowed upon him, including the Nobel Prize in 1905, and he died in 1910 leaving behind him at life’s work rich in its results and of great benefit to mankind. Such distinguished bacteriologists and Emil von Behring (1854 – 1917), Richard Pfeiffer (1858 – 1945), and Friedrich Loeffler (1852 – 1915) were trained by him.