Robert Heinrich Herman Koch ( 11 December 1843 – 27 May 1910) was a celebrated German physician and pioneering microbiologist. As the founder of modern bacteriology, he is known for his role in identifying the specific causative agents of tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax and for giving experimental support for the concept of infectious disease. In addition to his trail-blazing studies on these diseases, Koch created and improved laboratory technologies and techniques in the field of microbiology, and made key discoveries in public health.
His research led to the creation of Koch’s postulates, a series of four generalized principles linking specific microorganisms to specific diseases that remain today the “gold standard” in medical microbiology. As a result of his groundbreaking research on tuberculosis, Koch received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1905.
Robert Koch was born in Clausthal, Hanover, Germany, on 11 December 1843, to Hermann Koch and Mathilde Julie Henriette Biewand. Koch excelled in academics from an early age. Before entering school in 1848, he had taught himself how to read and write.
He graduated from high school in 1862, having excelled in science and maths. At the age of 19, Koch entered the University of Göttingen, studying natural science. However, after three semesters, Koch decided to change his area of study to medicine, as he aspired to be a physician. During his fifth semester of medical school, Jacob Henle, an anatomist who had published a theory of contagion in 1840, asked him to participate in his research project on uterine nerve structure.
In his sixth semester, Koch began to conduct research at the Physiological Institute, where he studied succinic acid secretion. This would eventually form the basis of his dissertation. In January 1866, Koch graduated from medical school, earning honors of the highest distinction.
In July 1867, following his graduation from medical school, Koch married Emma Adolfine Josephine Fraatz, and the two had a daughter, Gertrude, in 1868. After his graduation in 1866, he worked as a surgeon in the Franco-Prussian War, and following his service, worked as a physician in Wollstein, Posen. Koch’s marriage with Emma Fraatz ended in 1893, and later that same year, he married actress Hedwig Freiberg.
From 1885 to 1890, he served as an administrator and professor at Berlin University. Koch suffered a heart attack on 9 April 1910, and never made a complete recovery. On 27 May, only three days after giving a lecture on his tuberculosis research at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Robert Koch died in Baden-Baden at the age of 66. Following his death, the Institute named its establishment after him in his honour.
Koch next turned his attention to cholera, and began to conduct research in Egypt in the hopes of isolating the causative agent of the disease. However, he was not able to complete the task before the epidemic in Egypt ended, and subsequently traveled to India to continue with the study.
In India, Koch was indeed able to determine the causative agent of cholera, isolating Vibrio cholerae. The bacterium had originally been isolated in 1854 by Italian anatomist Filippo Pacini, but its exact nature and his results were not widely known.