Domagk, Gerhard (1895-1964) German Bacteriologist (Scientist)

Gerhard Domagk responded to his wartime experience of powerlessness as a physician to treat the wounded for bacterial infections by conducting research on antibacterial agents. In 1932, he discovered an unlikely candidate as the "magic bullet"—a red leather dye—that fought bacterial infection without poisoning the infected. This discovery transformed the medical field, which had previously been handcuffed against treating bacterial infection.

Gerhard Johannes Paul Domagk was born on October 30, 1895, in Lagow, Brandenburg, which was then part of Germany and is now in Poland. His mother was Martha Reimer, and his father, Paul Domagk, was assistant headmaster of a school in Sommerfeld. Domagk attended this school, which specialized in science instruction, until he turned 14, whereupon he transferred to school in Silesia. In 1914, he commenced study as a medical student at the University of Kiel, but within months World War I broke out, so he enlisted in the German army, which assigned him to the fighting in Flanders.

In December 1914, the army transferred him to the eastern front, where he was wounded in battle. He joined the Sanitary Service, serving as a medical officer throughout the remainder of the war. Working in the cholera hospitals of Russia (among other assignments), he experienced the powerlessness of medical treatment of bacterial infections.

In 1918, Domagk returned to the University of Kiel to complete his medical studies, and in 1921, he passed his state medical examinations to earn his medical degree. He conducted laboratory research for the next three years, first on creatin and creatinin under Max Burger, and then on metabolism under Professors Hoppe-Seyler and Emmerich. In 1924, the University of Greifswald appointed him university lecturer in pathological anatomy; the next year, he moved to the University of Munster, which appointed him to the same position. Also in 1925, he married Gertrude Strube, and together, the couple eventually had four children—three sons and one daughter.

From 1927 through 1929, Domagk took a leave of absence to conduct research at I. G. Farbenindustrie, in Wuppertal. In 1929, the company established a new research institute for pathological anatomy and bacteriology and appointed Domagk its director of research in experimental pathology and bacteriology. Motivated by his wartime inability to treat bacterial infections, Domagk focused his investigations on finding antibacterial agents, first in vitro, or in test tubes, and then in vivo, or in living organisms, such as mice and rabbits.

In 1932, after testing thousands of potential antibacterial agents, Domagk discovered a red coal-tar dye used on leather, Protonsil Rubrum, which exhibited effects against bacteria in test tubes and proved nontoxic to mice. He conducted an experiment whereby he injected 26 mice with a hemolytic streptococcal bacteria culture, then injected 12 mice with a single dose of Protonsil Rubrum an hour and a half later. The 14 control mice, which did not receive the potential antibacterial agent, all died within four days, as expected. The 12 treated mice, on the other hand, all survived!

For reasons unknown, Domagk waited three years before publishing his findings. During this period, his daughter contracted a strep-tococcal infection at his laboratory when she was accidentally pricked with a needle; after all traditional treatments failed to respond, Domagk injected her with a dose of Protonsil Rubrum, and she recovered! He finally published his results in 1935 in the German journal Deutsche medezinische Wocherschrift, in an article entitled "Ein Beitrag zur Chemotherapie der bak-teriellen Infektionen."

Subsequent independent research confirmed his findings, extending them to identify the sulfonamide group as the active ingredient in Protonsil Rubrum. Ensuing studies discovered that this treatment does not in fact kill bacteria but rather prevents the bacteria from reproducing by blocking metabolism. Sulfanil-amide derivatives proved effective against pneumonia, meningitis, blood poisoning, and gonorrhea. Domagk’s discovery thus transformed the medical field, empowering doctors to treat bacterial infections.

In recognition of the significance of this discovery, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Domagk the 1939 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, but Adolf Hitler had forbidden German citizens from receiving the prize. In fact, the Nazi government arrested Domagk when he informed it of this honor. Not until 1947, after World War II (during which his mother died of hunger in a refugee camp in 1945) had ended, did Domagk receive the medal, though the prize money had reverted to the Nobel Foundation.

Domagk followed up on his antibacterial studies with tubercular chemotherapy research, discovering the antitubercular compounds Con-teben and Tibione (which fight tuberculosis effectively despite their toxicity). He retired in 1958. Besides the Nobel Prize, he received numerous other honors: he was knighted in the Order of Merit in 1952 and was awarded the Grand Cross of the Civil Order of Health of Spain in 1955; the University of Frankfurt granted him its Paul Ehrlich Gold Medal and Prize in 1956; the Royal Society of London and the British Academy of Science inducted him into their fellowships in 1959; and the Japanese government bestowed on him its Order of Merit of the Rising Sun in 1960. Domagk died of a heart attack on April 24, 1964.

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