The 1840s were the age of Biedermeier and pauperism but they were also shaped by industrialisation, urbanisation and the "Social Question" in Germany. Despite the gradual increase in life expectancy infant mortality was high. Adults died of the "national epidemic" tuberculosis when cholera epidemics weren't raging through the country. The situation into which Robert Koch was born in December 1843 was characteristic for the period. He was the third son of a total of 13 children of a miner in the Harz region; only two did not survive childhood. Five of the siblings left Clausthal and emigrated to the USA and Mexico. Although he actually wanted to become a teacher, Robert Koch studied medicine. This reflected his interest in nature. Already as a child he had collected insects and minerals. He started doing experimental work on anthrax in 1876 in his Wollstein residence. Microscopic drawings in the makeshift laboratory were followed by the first microphotographs in 1877/78.
From Wollstein he was appointed to the Imperial Health Office in Berlin in 1880. This was where he finely tuned, amongst other things, the bacteriological methodology that was to prove just as useful for research into epidemics as it was for the development of preventive measures like disinfection.
Koch's paper on the "Aetiology of Tuberculosis", which he gave on 24 March 1882, established his scientific renown. One year later he embarked on his first expedition to Egypt and India to study the cholera epidemics there. Koch succeeded in detecting the pathogen in excretions from the patients under the microscope, too, and in identifying the aetiology of the epidemic.
Tuberculosis and cholera continued to be important research subjects. The goal was either to prevent infectious diseases or to control epidemics through targeted measures. In the case of the endemic disease, tuberculosis, efforts were directed towards vaccination particularly as the external living conditions at the time were unfavourable. The cholera outbreak in Hamburg in 1892 revealed that the quality of drinking water was of crucial importance.
The hopes of finding an effective treatment or even a tuberculosis vaccine were dashed in 1890. Tuberculin was, however, a means of rapidly and reliably detecting infection. The success of Koch's staff at the University’s Hygiene Institute and his own important methodological work led, at the end of the 1880s, to plans for a new Institute to carry out research into infectious diseases.
On 1 July 1891 the Royal Prussian Institute for Infectious Diseases was opened for Robert Koch. Nine years later it relocated to Nordufer in Berlin Wedding. The institution still bears the name of its founding father today. International co-operation and contacts were the dominant features of Koch's personal work style and the atmosphere in the various departments.
From 1896, Robert Koch spent several months of every year on expeditions mainly in Africa researching tropical diseases. The fields of research initially comprised animal epidemics in southern Africa, including Rinderpest, Texas fever and East Coast fever and later tropical diseases in humans, the transmission routes of which were still unknown, above all malaria and sleeping sickness. A commission headed by Robert Koch was sent to Africa in the years 1906/1907 to examine ways of treating sleeping sickness. Koch was successful initially in the treatment of the disease by making systematic use of an arsenic compound called atoxyl. After using the substance over longer periods, however, it was discovered that the parasites only disappeared temporarily. Koch doubled the dose even though he was aware of the risks the substance posed. Many patients suffered pain and colic and some even went blind. Despite this, Koch remained convinced of the fundamental benefits of atoxyl. Upon his return from Africa, he recommended that special isolation and treatment camps be set up for people with sleeping sickness so that the substance could be used consistently to combat the disease. This strategy was also propagated by British physicians specialised in the treatment of tropical diseases. Koch’s last research trip was his most inglorious expedition.
A private trip took him in 1908 via the USA to Japan where he visited his former staff member Shibasaburo Kitasato. During a short recreational trip Robert Koch passed away in Baden Baden in 1910. At his own behest he was cremated and the urn containing his ashes was returned to Berlin.