Clemens Peter Pirquet von Cesenatico
Biography of Clemens Peter Pirquet von Cesenatico
Clemens Peter Freiherr von Pirquet was the progeny of a Lower Austrian noble family, the term Freiherr corresponding to English baron. His brother was Guido von Pirquet (1880–1966), a specialist in ballistics and thermodynamics and one of the early pioneers of space exploration.
He initially planned to study for the clergy and attended a Jesuit boarding school in Kalksburg before he commenced the study of theology at the University of Innsbruck. However, he soon changed to the study of philosophy at the University of Löwen, but then changed his mind again and studied medicine at the university of Graz. He qualified in medicine i Graz in 1900 and became doctor of medicine that year.
As a newly fledged physician he became an assistant under Theodor Escherich (1857-1911) at the Children's clinic in Vienna. After habilitating for paediatrics in 1908, he had achieved such fame that he was invited to America to become professor of paediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a tenure he held for two years. In 1910 he returned to Europe to take over the chair of paediatrics at Breslau. The following year, 1911, he was appointed Escherich's successor in Vienna, holding that tenure until his tragic death on February 28, 1929.
Von Pirquet primarily devoted himself to bacteriology and immunology. In 1906 he noticed that patients who had received injections of horse serum or smallpox vaccine usually had quicker, more severe reactions to second injections. His term for this phenomenon, coined with Béla Schick (1877-1967), designates a conditions from which a drastically increasing proportion of people of the industrialised world suffers: allergy – from the Greek "allos" meaning changed or altered state and "ergon" meaning reaction or reactivity.
While studying the symptoms of cowpox vaccination, he also developed a new theory about the incubation time of infectious diseases and the formation of antibodies. In 1909 he published the results of a series of tuberculin tests of inhabitants of Vienna that showed that 70 percent of the children tested had been infected by tuberculosis by the age of ten, and more than 90 percent at the age of fourteen.
A doctor in the time of need
Von Pirquet also made important contributions on infant nutrition, and on provisions in the time immediately after the First World War - a period of great suffering for most Austrians. In 1919 he organised the American Children's Relief, he extended the paediatric clinic and worked for the education of physicians and nurses. After the establishment of the Austrian Directorate of Public Health he was named Secretary-General, International Union for Youth Welfare to the League of Nations. The crisis in Austria after World War I had much in common with the crisis marked by hyperinflation that hit Germany a few years later, but conditions in Austria were probably even worse than in Germany.
The author Stefan Zweig described the condition of his native country at this time: ". . . Every trip to town was a shocking experience, for the first time I looked into the yellow, dangerous eyes of famine. The black bread crumbled and tasted like pitch and glue, the coffee was an extraction of burnt barley, the beer was yellow water, the chocolate coloured sand and the potatoes had been frozen. Most people bred rabbits in order to have some taste of meat . . . and well fed dogs and cat rarely returned home from a stroll."
Clemens von Pirquet left a comprehensive work, covering all of his scientific research.
We thank Ian Ellis for correcting an error.