Emil von Behring


Emil Adolf Behring, from 1901 von Behring († March 31, 1917 in Marburg) was a German physician, immunologist, serologist and entrepreneur. He was the founder of passive antitoxic vaccination (“blood serum therapy”) and received the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1901.

Particularly due to his success in developing blood serum-derived drugs against diphtheria, which he developed in collaboration with Kitasato Shibasaburō and Paul Ehrlich, and against tetanus, he was praised in the press as the “savior of children” and – since the tetanus healing serum was of particular benefit to the wounded of the First World War – as the “savior of soldiers”. Behring was subsequently awarded the Iron Cross on the white ribbon by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1915.

Emil Adolf Behring (from 1901 Emil von Behring) was born the son of the teacher Georg August Behring (1819-1886) and his second wife Augustine Zech (1828-1892). His father already had four children from his first marriage, and Emil was the first of nine more. A scholarship from the Prussian state enabled him to graduate from high school. On October 2, 1874, he entered the Kaiser-Wilhelms-Akademie für das militärärztliche Bildungswesen (the military medical academy “Pepinière”) in Berlin, where he completed his medical studies at state expense in exchange for an eight-year military service obligation after graduation. In 1878 he was awarded a doctorate in medicine from the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin with a dissertation entitled Neuere Beobachtungen über die Neurotomia opticociliaris; he received his license to practice medicine in 1880. He then worked as a troop physician in the province of Posen, with stations in Wohlau (1878-1880), Posen (1880-1883), Winzig (1883-1887) and Bojanowo (1887).

The training and continuing education of military doctors, which was oriented toward military hygiene, the care of wounds and the prevention of epidemics, sensitized Behring to epidemic prevention and hygiene. Behring received further important impressions from the pharmacologist Carl Binz in Bonn and during his time as assistant to Robert Koch and later as senior physician at the Medical Clinic specializing in infectious diseases and pneumology at the Charité of Koch”s Prussian Institute for Infectious Diseases in Berlin. Behring began his work on serum therapy in 1890 with the Japanese Kitasato Shibasaburō, with whom he published the paper, “On the Origin of Diphtheria Immunity and Tetanus Immunity in Animals.” At the end of 1891, the diphtheria serum (diphtheria antitoxin) obtained from sheep serum was used for the first time on two children suffering from diphtheria at Ernst von Bergmann”s University Surgical Clinic – but without success, as the dosage of antitoxin used was too low. The collaboration of his colleagues Paul Ehrlich and Erich Wernicke contributed significantly to the development of an effective curative serum. The basic idea of the blood serum therapy realized by Behring and his Berlin colleagues was based on the assumption that it was possible to fight the pathogens of infectious diseases not with disinfecting chemicals but with antitoxins – i.e., with antidotes produced by the body itself as part of the defense reaction.

From a scientific point of view, the breakthrough came in early 1894, when the diphtheria cure serum was successfully used not only in the Berlin clinics but also in Leipzig and other cities. The drug also replaced the tracheotomy that had been performed during treatment until then, and was described as “Behring”s gold” by Otto Heubner during the International Hygiene Congress in Budapest. However, Behring lacked financially strong non-governmental partners to realize his pioneering idea of antitoxin treatment on a large scale. As early as the fall of 1892, the chemist August Laubenheimer, a member of the board of management of Farbwerke Hoechst, recognized the scope of Behring”s ideas and persuaded him to cooperate with the company. In August 1894, production began in Frankfurt-Höchst; in November of the same year, a serum production facility with an initial 57 horses was inaugurated in Höchst in the presence of Behring and Robert Koch. By the end of the year, more than 75,000 serum vials had already been shipped; in the 1895 operating year, the net net profit was 706,770 Marks. The Farbwerke offered a diphtheria cure serum developed by Behring and Ehrlich, which achieved a cure rate of 75 percent for this previously mostly fatal childhood disease. In October 1894, Behring was appointed hygiene professor at the University of Halle thanks to the mediation of the ministry official Friedrich Althoff.

In 1895, Friedrich Althoff, or rather the Prussian state, appointed Behring, who had no teaching successes in Halle, to the University of Marburg as a full professor of hygiene and director of the Hygiene Institute of the Medical Faculty. In the same year, a private laboratory, very well equipped for the time, had been set up on the Schlossberg with funds from the Farbwerke and 25,000 gold francs from the “Prix Alberto Levi” awarded to him in France, which also included a small stable for the laboratory animals. In 1901, Behring was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, having already been nobilized (in Prussia) on January 18, 1901 (from then on Emil Adolf von Behring). Kaiser Wilhelm II awarded him the title “Excellenz” as Wirklicher Geheimer Rat in 1903.

Behring considered the idea of his own company in the course of 1903, whereupon in 1904 further land and an estate at Schlosspark were added to the laboratory, forming the basis for the Behringwerk. One reason to strive for independence in a separate company was the change in the previous contractual relationships with the Farbwerke in Höchst, where August Laubenheimer, who until then had acted as an intermediary, resigned from the board in 1903.

On the occasion of the founding of his company in Marburg, Behring noted the following words: “The extensive and quite costly buildings, land, livestock, laboratory facilities, to which are added departments with a large number of servants working towards special goals, have been united to form an overall company that has been given the name Behringwerk. However, despite the independence he had now gained, Behring needed a business partner, since he did not know much about the commercial management of a company and the sale of his products. On November 7, 1904, when the new company was entered in the commercial register as “Behringwerke oHG,” Carl Siebert, a pharmacist from Marburg, joined him as a partner. Operations began with an initial staff of ten. Rapid growth of the company necessitated the transformation of Behringwerke into Behringwerke Gesellschaft mbH in 1914.

Behring also discovered tetanus toxin. With the start of the First World War, production expanded enormously, as the tetanus healing serum developed by Behring for soldiers lying in the filthy trenches now became the “savior of soldiers” from deadly tetanus. In addition to the tetanus healing serum, dysentery and gas gangrene serum as well as cholera vaccine were also produced for the army.

Emil von Behring died before the end of World War I, on March 31, 1917, at the age of 63, the largest landowner in the city of Marburg, ill since the summer of 1916 and withdrawn from all scientific and entrepreneurial business. His resting place is in the Behring Mausoleum on Elsenhöhe, named after his wife Else von Behring, which offers a view over Behring”s former estates and of Marburg Castle.

Since 1874 he was a member, later honorary member of the Pépinière-Corps Suevo-Borussia, which continues today in the Corps Guestphalia et Suevoborussia Marburg.

From November 1907 to the summer of 1910, Behring was under the medical treatment of the internist Rudolf von Hößlin (1858-1938) in his Neuwittelsbach Sanatorium in the Nymphenburg district of Munich, where he “hoped to find recuperation from his grueling work” (according to Zeiss and Bieling 194041, p. 497). At least during this time, he suffered from severe depression. This is also reported by one of Sigmund Freud”s most famous patients, the “Wolf Man,” in his memoirs. He had seen Behring during a sanatorium stay in 1908 near Nymphenburg Palace in Munich (the clinic was co-supervised by the well-known psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin.

In 1895, Emil Behring (at that time still without a title of nobility) bought a villa on the island of Capri near Naples, which he proudly called “Villa Behring”. It was there that he and his young wife Else Spinola (1876-1936) went on their honeymoon after they were married on December 29, 1896. She was the daughter of Werner Bernhard Spinola (1836-1900), a privy councilor and vice-director of the Charité, and his wife Elise Charlotte Bendix (1846-1926). The couple had six sons, Fritz, Bernhard, Hans, Kurt, Emil and Otto, two of whom, Hans (1903-1982) and Otto von Behring (1913-2002), also studied medicine.

Von Behring chose prominent scientists and personalities such as Émile Roux, Carl Wernicke, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Ilya Ilyich Metschnikov and Friedrich Althoff as godparents. The second son, Bernhard (1900-1918), was killed as an ensign in France during the First World War.

His nephew Walter Bieber (1890-1972) also studied medicine and worked as a senior physician at the Emil von Behring Institute in Marburg from 1919 to 1923. Later, he was head of the epidemic department at the Reich Ministry of the Interior in Berlin.

Hitler declared Else Spinola a “noble Aryan” in 1934 after von Behring had been slandered for contaminating Germanic blood with the animal blood serum. The Stürmer had claimed that Behring had “contaminated his own blood.” On the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of serum therapy in 1940, the Nazi state also held a major commemoration with scholars from 23 nations.

Several members of the Behring family were teachers, such as the grandfather Johann Friedrich († 1853, teacher in Gramten, district Rosenberg), the father Georg August (teacher in Raudnitz, Klein-Sehren, Chroste and Hansdorf), the brothers Otto (1845-1898, teacher in Daulen), Albert (1864-1913, teacher in Hansdorf) and Paul (1867-1928, teacher in Danzig). The sister Bertha (1859-1927), who herself taught in the Hansdorf school before her marriage, was married to the teacher Hermann Bieber (1863-1926). Their son Hermann Bieber (1895-1926) was later also a teacher in Hansdorf.


  1. Emil von Behring
  2. Emil von Behring
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