Stanislaus Josef Mathias von Prowazek, Edler von Lanow
Biography of Stanislaus Josef Mathias von Prowazek, Edler von Lanow
Stanislaus Josef Mathias von Prowazek, Edler von Lanow, was born in Neuhaus, Bohemia, to a family that descended from Czech peasant stock. His father, an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, was ennobled in 1893. At this time Prowazek was a student at the Plzen Gymnasium and altered the spelling of his name from the original Provázek.
In 1795 Prowazek began to study natural science at the University of Prague, where he came under the influence of the zoologist Berthold Hatschek (1854-1941) and the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (1838-1916). After two years study he followed Hatschek to the University of Vienna, from which he received the Ph.D. in 1899.
The young zoologist
He then concentrated on zoology, working with Hatschek at the zoological institutes in Vienna and in Trieste, before he came to Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) at The Royal Prussian Institute for Experimental Therapy in Frankfurt in 1901, and then with Richard von Hertwig (1850-1937) in Munich.
In 1903 he accepted an invitation from Fritz Schaudinn (1871-1906), whom he had met in Trieste in 1901, to work as his assistant at the zoological section of the University of Berlin at Rovinj on the Istria peninsula in Croatia. The friendship between Prowazek and Schaudinn was decisive in both their careers, and the brief time in which they worked together – less than two years – was of considerable importance to the development of protistology.
In 1905 he took over provisional leadership of the department of protozoan studies – Protozoenkunde – at the Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt in Berlin. The following year he joined an expedition under the leadership of Albert Neisser to Java to study syphilis. In Batavia (Jakarta) he and Ludwig Halberstädter succeeded in discovering the agent that causes trachoma – now known as Prowazek's or Prowazek-Halberstädter bodies. At the same time, he began his studies of vaccinia. After a short visit to Japan, Prowazek returned to Hamburg, from which he made several other research expeditions.
In 1905 Schaudinn had been appointed director of the zoological section of the Institut für Schiffs- und Tropenkrankheiten in Hamburg. Upon his premature death the following year, at the age of thirty-five, Prowazek was named his successor. His further career was frequently interrupted by research travels.
In 1908 he went to Rio de Janeiro to study the aetiology of vaccinia and variola at the Instituto Osvaldo Cruz in Manguinhos near Rio de Janeiro. In 1910 his destination was Sumatra and the German colonies of Western Samoa, Yap, and Saipan to explore the causes of a number of infectious diseases, among them trachoma, fowl pox, Newcastle disease, silkworm jaundice, epitheliosis desquamativa conjunctivae, and molluscum contagiosum.
Death in the camp
In 1913 and 1914 Prowazek travelled to Serbia and Constantinople, where typhus was raging. He made observations on the aetiology, mode of transmission, and life cycle of the parasite causing the disease, and devoted the last two years of his life to studying it. He found that epidemic typhus was caused by the same organism Howard Tayler Ricketts (1871)-1910) had previously described, now known as Rickettsia prowazeki. He also described the chalmydozoa and wrote a 3 volume text on protozoa.
He himself died of typhus. In 1915, he and Henrique da Rocha-Lima (1879-1956) were sent to investigate an epidemic that had broken out among Russian prisoners confined in a camp near Cottbus in Brandenburg, close to the Polish border. Da Rocha-Lima contracted the disease at the same time, but recovered to isolate the causative microorganism, which he called Rickettsia prowazekii, in honour of both Prowazek and Ricketts, who had also died of typhus while investigating it.
During his scientific career, Prowazek dealt with a wide variety of topics, including the origin of the axial filament of flagella, merotomy, and the mode of transmission of microbial diseases. He was the first to demonstrate that the parasite Trypanosoma lewisi passes through a special stage in the body of its host, the rat louse. He made a number of transplantation experiments on protista, and contributed widely to protistology and to its medical applications.
Although he lacked formal medical education, Prowazek had a considerable grasp of medical problems, to which he applied his wide biological knowledge and his skill in chemistry and physics. He was an acute observer, and was able to master subtle techniques and find appropriate subjects through which to approach general biological problems. He considered general aspects of biology in even his specialized studies. His work led him from morphology and developmental studies to an investigation of unicellular organisms, which he examined by means of physiochemical methods, in an attempt to understand the underlying principles of life. He was not, however, a systematic theoretician, but rather developed the ideas of others by systematic research.
Prowazek was a cultivated man who wrote and worked with facility. His interests were wide, and his publications include works of fiction, which he signed “P. Laner.” During his expeditions to the South Pacific he became enchanted by the tropics and found of the primitive peoples; his book on Mariana Islands is concerned with their history, flora, fauna, and ethnography.