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Robert Koch and the Discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#49 Science in History

24rd March 1882

Today in 1882, Robert Koch announces the discovery of the bacillus responsible for tuberculosis.

Edvard Munch's 'The Sick Child', His sister Sophie and his mother died of tuberculosis

Robert Koch was a German physician and microbiologist who is widely regarded as one of the founders of modern bacteriology. In 1882, Koch identified the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis, a deadly disease that had been plaguing humanity for centuries. His rigorous scientific methods and his development of Koch's postulates, a set of criteria for identifying the causative agent of a disease, helped establish the field of bacteriology and paved the way for the development of effective treatments for many infectious diseases. Koch's work had a significant impact on public health and medicine, making him a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1905.

The disease was also known as ‘Consumption’. It often struck young, creative individuals, with many poets and writers of the nineteenth century affected - consumption became a common theme in literature and poetry of the time. The poet John Keats was just 25 years old when he died from the disease and his poems reflected his illness and his struggle with mortality. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s decline in health was described by his wife, Mary Shelley. She recorded her husband’s physical weakness, and the constant coughing, in her journal until his death at the age of 29.

At the time, tuberculosis was responsible for one in seven deaths in Europe and America. It was a disease that had been around for thousands of years, with the earliest recorded cases dating back to ancient Egypt. Despite its prevalence, the cause of tuberculosis remained unknown until Robert Koch began his research.

Koch was a meticulous scientist who developed a rigorous set of criteria for identifying the causative agent of a disease. These criteria, known as Koch's postulates, required that a microorganism must be present in all cases of the disease, it must be isolated from the host and grown in pure culture, and it must cause the same disease when introduced into a healthy host.

Using these criteria, Koch began to investigate the cause of tuberculosis. He obtained samples of lung tissue from patients who had died from the disease and examined them under the microscope. He observed the presence of small, rod-shaped bacteria that were not present in healthy tissue. Koch was able to isolate these bacteria in pure culture and demonstrate that they caused the same disease when injected into animals. Koch's discovery paved the way for the development of effective treatments and ultimately led to the eradication of tuberculosis in many parts of the world.

Despite the significant advances made in the treatment of tuberculosis, the disease remains a major global health problem. Tuberculosis is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which can be transmitted from person to person through the air. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they release droplets containing the bacteria into the air, which can then be inhaled by others. Not everyone who is exposed to the bacteria will develop the disease. Factors such as age, overall health, and immune status can affect the likelihood of developing tuberculosis. People with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS, are at higher risk of developing tuberculosis.

The symptoms of tuberculosis can include a persistent cough, fever, night sweats, and weight loss. These symptoms can be mild at first and may be mistaken for other illnesses. If left untreated, tuberculosis can cause serious complications such as lung damage leading to death.

Treatment typically involves a course of antibiotics taken for several months. Treatment can be challenging, as the bacteria that cause tuberculosis are slow-growing and can be resistant to antibiotics. In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to remove infected tissue.

While tuberculosis is no longer the widespread public health threat that it once was, it remains a significant problem in many parts of the world where there is poverty and limited access to healthcare and antibiotics. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 1.4 million people died from tuberculosis globally in 2019. This makes TB one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide and the leading cause of death from a single infectious agent. It is worth noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has likely had an impact on TB mortality rates, as disruptions to healthcare services and other factors have made it more difficult to diagnose and treat the disease.


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