PAUL EHRLICH (1854-1915)

Systematic work on antimicrobial drugs was first initiated by the Germanphysician Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich worked in the fields of haematology, immunology, and chemotherapy.

He coined the term “chemotherapy” and also developed the concept of “selective toxicity in the early 1900s”, which is “the ability of an agent to inhibit or kill pathogenic microorganisms without any untoward effect to the host taking it”.

Paul Ehrlich tested large numbers of chemical dyes for 17 years in his quest for a “magic bullet” that would kill only microorganisms, and this led him to discover the first ever effective antimicrobial drugSalvarsan” (a synthetic arsenic compound which was used as at the time to treat and cure syphilis). Salvarsan (the 606th chemical compound he tried) was the most successful drug for the treatment of syphilis caused by Treponema pallidum.

His work in this area laid an important foundation for the era of chemotherapy – which is the use of chemicals that selectively inhibit or kill pathogens without causing damage to the victim.

Ehrlich’s work further made it clear that the causative agents of many illnesses were microorganisms, and that chemicals may exist that kill the microbe, but not the patient, thus curing the illness.


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