Biography of Theodor Escherich
Theodor Escherich was a pioneer paediatrician who devoted his efforts to improving child care, particularly infant hygiene and nutrition. He was the younger son of Kreismedizinalrat Ferdinand Escherich, a medical statistician, and Maria Sophie Frieder, daughter of a Bavarian army colonel. After attending the Jesuit seminary Stella Matutina in Feldkirch, Austria, Escherich began his academic and medical education in 1876 at Strassburg. He continued his studies at the universities of Kiel, Berlin, and Würzburg, and qualified at Munich in 1881. In 1882 he became first assistant to the internist Karl Christian Adolf Jakob Gerhardt (1833-1902) in the medical clinic of the Julius Hospital, Würzburg. It was Gerhardt who aroused Escehrich’s interest in paediatrics, and maybe also bacteriology, as he sent him as scientific assistant in the 1884 cholera epidemic at Naples.
As Germany lacked the necessary training facilities in paediatrics, Escherich went to Paris and then Vienna, where he worked for some months under Hermann Widerhofer (1832-1901) at the St. Anna Children’s Hospital. In 1885 he became clinical assistant in Munich at the Children’s Polyclinic of the Reisingerianum and at the Hauner Children’s Hospital (named for August von Hauner, 1811-1884) under Heinrich von Ranke (1830-1909). He became Privatdozent in paediatrics at the University of Munich in 1886.
Escherich was soon convinced that bacteriology could solve or illuminate many paediatric problems, and at Munich the circumstances were favourable for this approach. Robert Koch’s pupil, Wilhelm Frobenius, taught him pure culture techniques and methods of bacterial characterization; and he had access to Max Josef von Pettenkofer’s (1818-1901) hygienic institute, Otto von Bollinger’s (1843-1909) bacteriological laboratory, Karl von Voit’s (1831-1908) physiological institute, and Franz von Soxhlet’s (1848-1926) dairy industry facilities.
In 1886, after intensive laboratory investigations, Escherich published a monograph on the relationship of intestinal bacteria to the physiology of digestion in the infant. This work, Die Darmbakterien des Säuglings und ihre Beziehungen zur Physiologie der Verdauung (1886), established him as the leading bacteriologist in the field of paediatrics. In 1890 Escherich succeeded Rudolf von Jaksch (1855-1947) as professor extraordinary of paediatrics and director of the children’s clinic in Graz, where he was promoted to professor ordinary four years later. While working in Graz, his happiest years, he married Margaretha Pfaundler, daughter of the physicist Leopold Pfaundler.
When Hermann Widerhofer died in 1902, Escherich was appointed to his chair at Vienna. In 1903, determined to reduce the capital’s infant mortality, Escherich in a pamphlet appealed for support for the women of Vienna. The response was such that in the following year he established, with imperial patronage and civic approval, the Verein Säuglingsschutz - Infants’ Care Association. In 1908, the year of the Emperor Franz Joseph’s (1830-1916; 1848-1916) sixtieth jubilee, Escherich again drew attention to the inexcusably high national rate of infant mortality. His efforts resulted in eventual construction of the Imperial Institute for Maternal and Infant Care.
The Kinderklinik – the Children's clinic – at the St. Anna Hospital built to his plans, was officially dedicated soon afterward. This pioneer paediatrician, whose name is remembered in Escherichia coli, was indefatigable in his work for women and children. Unfortunately, there is no eponymic award for such efforts.