August Paul von Wassermann
Biography of August Paul von Wassermann
August Paul von Wassermann was born in Bamberg, the second son of Angelo Wassermann, a Bavarian court banker who was elevated to the hereditary nobility in 1910, and Dora Bauer. He attended the Gymnasium in Bamberg and studied medicine at the universities of Erlangen, Vienna, and Munich, receiving the M.D. at Strassburg in 1888 for a work on the effect of Sulfonal.
On September 1, 1891, he entered the newly established Institute for Infectious Diseases, headed by Koch, as an unpaid assistant in both the scientific and clinical divisions, working under Bernhard Proskauer (1851-1915). In February 1893 he became a temporary assistant assigned to problems related to cholera, and from February 1895 to June 1896 he was inspecting physician at the Institute’s antitoxin control station for diphteria, which was transferred in 1896 to the Institute for Serum Research and Testing in the Berlin suburb of Steglitz. Wassermann then returned to the institute itself as an unpaid assistant. During this time he was senior physician in the clinical division, of which he became director on April 1, 1902.
Wassermann in 1898 became titular professor and in 1901 he was habilitated as Privatdozent in internal medicine at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. He was named professor extraordinary – ausserordentlicher Professor – in 1902, and in 1911 honorary professor.
In 1906 he became director of the division experimental therapy and serum research at the Institute for Infectious Diseases, and the following year he was awarded the title of Geheimer Medizinalrat. Wassermann left the institution in 1913 to become director of the department of experimental therapy at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft for the Advancement of Science in Berlin Berlin-Dahlem. He held this position until his death.
Wassermann early understood the importance of the young science of bacteriology, and made the acquaintance of Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) of whom he became a pupil and colleague. Using pyocyaneous bacteria, Wassermann conducted experiments in 1896 on breaking the toxin-antitoxin bonds; this research lent support to Ehrlich’s side-chain theory, of which Wassermann became a proponent.
Wassermann was the first to point out that a reagent existed in precipitins and that it was far superior in sensitivity to that usually employed in chemistry. On the basis of studies paralleling those of Paul Theodor Uhlenhuth (1870-1957), who preceded him in publication but used a different method, Wassermann reported the possibility of differentiating albumen by a serologic procedure, and in 1901 he pointed out its potential practical applications in a joint paper with Albert Schütze (1872-1912). Three years earlier he had suggested to Robert Koch that human and animal blood might be differentiated by means of specific antibodies for erythrocytes. Drawing upon his work with Schütze, he also proposed a method for the evaluation of precipitating serums.
After 1900 Wassermann became increasingly occupied with problems relating to complement, which had not been thoroughly investigated. Based on the complementing fixation reaction discovered by Jules Jean Baptiste Vincent Bordet (1870-1961) and Octave Gengou (1875-1957) in 1901, he initially endeavoured to develop a complement fixation test for the diagnosis of tuberculosis. However, working at the Robert Koch Institute for Infectious Diseases in Berlin, Wassermann and Albert Neisser developed a test for the antibody produced by persons infected with the protozoan Spirochaeta pallida (now known as Treponema pallidum), the causative agent of syphilis.
The Wassermann reaction soon became a worldwide test and an invaluable method in the diagnosis of syphilis. This was only a year after Fritz Richard Schaudinn (1871-1906) and Paul Erich Hoffmann's (1868-1959) demonstration of the causative organism, Spirochaeta pallida, which had also received a lukewarm reception. Wassermann attributed the development of his test to the findings of Bordet and Gengou and the theoretical hypothesis put forward by Ehrlich in his explanation of antibody formation. Many modifications have been made to this test, by Kahn, Kolmer etc, but the general principles laid down by Wassermann are still valid. The significance of the Wassermann test and its application to modern clinical medicine can hardly be overemphasized.
Beyond facilitating diagnosis in acute cases of syphilis, the reaction illuminated certain unproved relationships between diseases. In 1906 Wassermann demonstrated with Felix Plaut that in creeping paralysis the Wassermann reaction shows positive when carried out on spinal fluid. The findings of Wassermann and his co-workers not only made it possible to detect syphilis but also established a new basis of therapy.
During World War I, Wassermann’s research was considerably curtailed and was finally suspended completely. As a hygienist and bacteriologist with the rank of brigadier general in the medical corps, he supervised epidemic control on the Eastern Front. He was subsequently appointed director of the Office of Hygiene and Bacteriology of the Prussian Ministry of War.
In the early 1920’s Wassermann’s institute was expanded and renamed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Experimental Therapy and biochemistry. Although Wassermann began to suffer in 1924 from Bright’s disease, which took his life the following year, he went to the institute whenever possible, remaining director until his death.
A man of means
Some felt that Wassermann carried on his investigations as a hobby, and he certainly did not need to earn a living. He was small in stature but, contrary to assertion, he was not stooped or hunch-backed, and he had bright blue (not dark) eyes. He always dressed with extreme elegance.
He was an impulsive man and a superb speaker, expressing his conclusions openly without scientific inhibitions. It was said that his theoretical knowledge was rather weak and that his practical application was not at all that good either, but that he relied on a number of technicians to do his biddings in the laboratory. These were dubbed his scientific coolies. He had an outstanding capacity to render complicated theoretical problems comprehensible to the uninitiated. He often lectured at weekly sessions of the Berlin Medical Society and eagerly accepted invitations to speak before local groups and international congresses. He was fond of similes and continually devised new ones in his lectures – comparing specificality, for example, to a light source that has a maximum but also a cone of dispersion. Similarly, he sought to find “railroad tracks” in an organism that might provide a clue for cancer therapy; the particular “car” that circulates on them was only of secondary importance.
With Rudolf Kraus (1868-1932), Wassermann was co-founder of the Free Association for Microbiology, and he served as president of the Academy for knowledge of Judaism. Although occasionally sarcastic, he was always helpful and kind, even under different conditions. He once characterized himself as a "laboratory worker.” His many honours included orders and decorations from Prussia, Belgium, Japan, Romania, Spain, and Turkey. In 1921 Wassermann was the first recipient of the Aronson Foundation Prize. However, he was never appointed to a chair at the prestigious Berlin faculty, and was never awarded the Nobel Prize, to which he is said to have been a candidate. In 1895 he married Alice von Taussig of Vienna; they had two sons.