Paul Ehrlich


Paul Ehrlich made notable contributions in several areas of medicine including selective dye staining of cells, immunology, cancer research, and chemical therapy of infectious diseases.

Ehrlich was born in Strehlen, Germany, and attended school in Breslau where an older cousin, Carl Weigert, was a physician at a local hospital. Weigert was researching cell staining with synthetic dyes, a procedure that makes cells more visible under a microscope. Weigert demonstrated the technique for his teenage cousin who was immediately fascinated by the process.

As a medical student Ehrlich undertook his own investigations into cell staining techniques, observing that dyes could selectively stain different types of cells. Most of his dyes came from the flourishing German dye industry, and Ehrlich noted that different chemical structures of the dyes gave them different cell staining properties, leading him to the hypothesis that there was a very specific chemical attraction between the dye and certain cells or parts of cells. This concept of specific chemical attractions was to guide much of his life's work.

German chemist and bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, corecipient, with Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, of the 1908 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, "in recognition of their work on immunity."
German chemist and bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, corecipient, with Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, of the 1908 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, "in recognition of their work on immunity."

Following graduation from medical school in 1878, Ehrlich accepted a position at a Berlin hospital where he employed his knowledge and skill with synthetic dyes to make numerous important contributions to medicine. He was able to use dyes to differentiate several types of red and white blood cells, including leukemia cells, and to assist German bacteriologist Robert Koch in staining and identifying the tuberculosis bacterium. Cell staining remains in use to identify both healthy and cancerous cells.

In 1883 Ehrlich married a young woman named Hedwig Pinkus, to whom he was quite devoted. They had two daughters, Stephanie and Marianne. In 1888 Ehrlich himself developed tuberculosis, left employment at the hospital, and took a yearlong trip to Egypt where he recovered from the infection.

Ehrlich returned to Berlin in 1889 and established a small research laboratory where he began work on the chemical nature of immunity, antitoxin sera, and the nature of the binding of antibodies to antigens. Over a period of ten years this work led to his concept of complementary chemical binding of antigen to antibody and his famous side chain theory to explain why only part of an antigen was necessary to raise immunity. This work in immunology led to a 1908 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Ehrlich made significant contributions to understanding cancers, including developing a strain of mouse cancer cells known as Ehrlich ascites cells that are still used in cancer research. Ehrlich's work with the selectivity of staining dyes for specific cells, and the specific binding of one antigen to only one antibody, led to the hypothesis that it should be possible to develop drugs that were so specific to disease cells that they could be considered "magic bullets."

Ehrlich embarked on his search for magic bullets to treat parasitic disease with a vast supply of new chemicals from the German dye industry. In 1909 Ehrlich discovered the first effective cure for syphilis, "compound 606" (also called Salvarsan). For his insight and this achievement Ehrlich is known as the father of chemotherapy.


Robert K. Griffith


Baumler, Ernst (1989). Paul Ehrlich, Scientist for Life. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Internet Resources

"Paul Ehrlich: Biography." The Nobel Foundation. Available from .

"Paul Ehrlich: Summary of Important Dates." Paul Ehrlich Institute. Available from .

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