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Discovery of Diphtheria Antitoxin


Dr. Emile Roux (French), discoverer of diphtheria antitoxin in 1894
Dr. Emile Roux (French), discoverer of diphtheria antitoxin in 1894
In the 1920s there were an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 cases of diphtheria per year in the United States, causing 13,000 to 15,000 deaths per year. Children represented a large majority of these cases and fatalities. One of the first effective treatments for diphtheria was discovered in the 1880s by U.S. physician Joseph O’Dwyer (1841-1898). O’Dwyer developed tubes that were inserted into the throat, and prevented victims from suffocating due to the membrane sheath that grows over and obstructs airways. In the 1890s, the German physician Emil von Behring developed an antitoxin that did not kill the bacterium, but neutralized the toxic poisons that the bacterium releases into the body. Von Behring discovered that animal blood has antitoxins in it and so he took the blood, removed the clotting agents and injected it into human patients. Von Behring was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Medicine for his role in the discovery, and development of a serum therapy for diphtheria. Americans William H. Park and Anna Wessels Williams ; and Pasteur Institute scientists Emile Roux and Auguste Chaillou also independently developed diphtheria antitoxin in the 1890s. The first successful vaccine for diphtheria was developed in 1913 by Behring. However, antibiotics against diphtheria were not available until the discovery and development of sulfa drugs following World War II .


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