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A microorganism itself may not be the immediate cause of a disease, but some substance it produces may be (a toxin, from a Greek word for "poison"). An organism stricken with the disease then produces a substance (an antitoxin) capable of neutralizing the toxin. If the organism recovers, the antitoxin present in its bloodstream confers immunity to the disease thereafter.

A German bacteriologist, Emil Adolf von Behring (1854-1917), decided in 1890 that it might be possible to produce an immunity against tetanus, in an animal, by injecting into it graded doses of blood serum from another animal suffering from tetanus. Enough of the serum would be given to induce antitoxin formation, but not enough to cause it to die.

It was found that the animal thus immunized could then be used as a source of antitoxin that could confer at least temporary immunity on still another animal, or in a human being.

Behring tried this also in the case of diphtheria, a disease that was in those days common among children and often fatal. The diphtheria antitoxin, once marketed, not only conferred a certain immunity, but helped defeat the disease even after it had established itself.

For this work, Behring received the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1901, the first year in which Nobel Prizes were awarded.

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Author:Asimov, Isaac
Publication:Asimov's Chronology of Science & Discovery, Updated ed.
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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