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Georg Theodor August Gaffky

Born 1850
Died 1918

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German hygienist and bacteriologist, born February 17, 1850, Hannover; died September 23, 1918, Hannover.

Biography of Georg Theodor August Gaffky

Georg Theodor August Gaffky was the first to obtain a pure culture of the typhoid bacillus, and in 1884 established that it is the causative agent of typhus.

Gaffky was the son of Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Gaffky, a shipping agent, and Emma Wilhelmine Mathilde Schumacher. After attending a Gymnasium in Hannover he studied medicine in Berlin at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Universität. His studies were interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). He served as a hospital orderly and then returned to the university to take the M.D. in 1873, with a dissertation on the causal relation between chronic lead poisoning and kidney disease. Gaffky was an assistant at the Berlin Charité and passed the Staatsexamen in 1875. He then spent several years as a military surgeon posted to various garrisons.

Working for the great man
1880 Gaffky and Friedrich August Johannes Löffler (1852-1915) were ordered to assist Robert Koch (1843-1910) at the recently founded imperial health office – Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt – in Berlin. They were the first two of the brilliant group of assistants that Koch was assembling there. Under Koch’s tutelage, Gaffky participated in developing new bacteriological methods and in demonstrating the cause of infectious disease.

From the beginning of his work with Koch, Gaffky was drawn into a variety of researches at the public health laboratory. In 1881 he reported on experimentally produced septicaemia in animals. Controverting Carl von Naegeli’s (1817-1891) view that pathogenic bacteria might eventually arise through the accommodation and indefinite variability of common, previously harmless forms, Gaffky maintained that these disease-producing bacteria were specific and derived only from forms like themselves. He took part with Löffler in Koch’s work on steam disinfection, and participated in the investigations on anthrax, cholera, and tuberculosis.

Helmut Unger, a young military physician who was an assistant to Robert Koch in Berlin with Friedrich Löffler, writes of Gaffky, Löffler, and Koch in this glorious time:
«His [Koch’s] growing interest in them turned them on, so much that they would even compete with him. And thus began a great time with common work and research, as happy for teacher as for his pupils . . .
. . .As unassuming as Koch was in other respects, however willingly he accepted the priority of others to a discovery, however generously he advised his assistants in science, the bacterium causing tuberculosis he wanted to find all alone. It had become a fixed idea to him that this was nobody else’s task . . .
. . . The three of them were already on the track of the typhus and the diphtheria bacillus, the work had progressed so far that that Gaffky and Löffler would be able to find them without any more assistance from of Koch. The only thing that still allured him was the bacteria causing tuberculosis. If it existed. . . ." It did, and Gaffky was the first to learn about the discovery, in Robert Koch's laboratory.

The bacillus causing typhoid fever
Gaffky’s most important contribution was in the isolation and culture of the bacillus that is the causative agent of typhoid fever. In 1880 Karl Joseph Eberth had seen and described a bacillus which he believed to be the cause of this disease, while Koch had independently observed the organism and photographed masses of the bacilli. But Eberth and Koch had been able to discern the bacillus in no more than half the cases of typhoid fever in which they had made their examinations. It was Gaffky’s hypothesis that this difficulty might bed due in part to the culture methods employed, and for the next several years he sought always to obtain the bacillus with high consistency in pure culture. To do so, it was necessary for him to differentiate between the causative agent of typhoid fever – or Typhus abdominalis, as he called it – and similar bacilli that might be present but represented secondary invaders of the diseased tissues.

Gaffky grew cultures of the bacillus in solid nutrient gelatine, on the surface of boiled potatoes, in solidified sheep blood serum, in fluid serum, and in bouillon. He identified the bacillus and believed that he had demonstrated its spores.

Despite this success in culturing the bacillus in different media, Gaffky was never able to cultivate it in living animals to produce the disease, although he tried repeatedly to achieve this further proof. In vain he experimentally fed infective material to Java monkeys, mice, guinea pigs, and other animals in an attempt to induce typhoid fever in them.

Still, Gaffky could report that he had with the highest probability isolated the aetiological agent of typhoid fever, for his examinations had disclosed the presence of the bacillus in twenty-six of twenty-eight cases of the disease and he published these results of his investigations in the Mittheilungen aus dem Kaiserlichen Gesundheitsamte in 1884. The bacillus is now known as the Eberthella or Gaffky-Eberth bacillus.

A journey to Egypt
In 1883-1884 Gaffky was a member of the expedition, sponsored by the German state and led by Robert Koch that was sent to Egypt to investigate the outbreak of cholera there. On the commission’s return, Koch reported the identification of the cholera bacillus and described the ways in which the infection was transmitted.

Gaffky was responsible for preparing a detailed documentary report on the journey and its scientific results, published in the Arbeiten aus dem Kaiserlichen Gesundheitsamte in 1887. The cholera bacterium was first described by the Italian anatomist Filippo Pacini (1812-1883) in 1854.

Herr Director & Professor
In 1885 Koch accepted the chair of hygiene at the University of Berlin and Gaffky succeeded him as director of the imperial health office - the Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt. In 1888 Gaffky was appointed professor of hygiene at the University of Giessen and undertook the direction of the new Hygienic Institute there. While he was at Giessen in 1892 cholera broke out in Hamburg, and Gaffky interrupted his teaching to advise the government in combating the epidemic.

A passage to India
In 1897 Gaffky headed a government commission – the Reichskommission – to investigate plague in India. Bubonic plague was then rife in Bombay and other centres. The outbreak was first reported in a message from Bombay dated September 24: The bubonic plague has broken out here. There have already been 300 deaths. The bacillus has been identified as the bacillus discovered by Professor Kitasato during the plague in Hong Kong."

There were weekly horror reports of rising numbers of deaths, a beginning famine and transfer of the epidemic to Europe by an English ship transporting troops. For fear of losing control of the outbreak, several European states decided to send so-called plague commissions to India in order to investigate the epidemic.

As Koch was at this time in South Africa, investigating rinderpest, the expedition was first headed by Gaffky. Other members included the Giessen internist Georg Sticker (1860-1960), Adolf Dieudonnée who represented serum therapy at the Reichsgesundheitsamt, and Richard Friedrich Johannes Pfeiffer (1858-1945). The German plague commission reached Bombay on March 8, 1897.

In May, Robert Koch arrived in Bombay and assumed leadership of the commission. Under Gaffky’s direction the German commission had then confirmed the etiologic role of the plague bacillus Yersinia pestis – discovered in 1894 by Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943) and by Shibasaburo Kitasato (1852-1931) and had launched epidemiological inquiries. Koch organized laboratory tests of Yersin’s serum and Waldemar Mordecai Wolfe Haffkine’s (1860-1930) vaccine against plague. He designated rats as the plague source and urged reoriented control measures, but (overlooking the flea as vector) he presumed the reservoir to be maintained by cannibalism. Visiting the North-West Frontier Province, he and Gaffky recognized a local disease as endemic plague.

Succeeding Robert Koch
In 1904, on the suggestion of Robert Koch, Gaffky succeeded his mentor as director of the Institut für Infektionskrankheiten, which he worked to expand. Gaffky proved himself an able administrator and under his guidance the institute was enlarged by a division for tropical diseases, a rabies station, and a division for protozoology. He also served as co-editor of the Zeitschrift für Hygiene und Infektionskrankheiten.

Gaffky retired from his position in 1913, leaving Berlin for the quieter surroundings of Hannover. He had intended to resume his own studies, but when World War I broke out he was again called to serve the government as advisor of hygiene and public health. He died just before the war ended.

In his career Gaffky followed in Koch’s footsteps, but his own contributions to bacteriology and public health were significant. Gaffky also conducted important research on the Bacillus botulinus and on the chest disease of horses.

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