An interesting fact I came across while I was preparing to meet a German public health expert (see my blogs in the coming weeks), is that the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore, among many other institutions, was inspired by and modeled after the Hygieneinstitut (Hygiene Institute) in Munich.
The Hygieneinstitut was founded by the chemist and hygienist Max Joseph von Pettenkofer (1818 –1901) in 1879. At the beginning of his career, Pettenkofer was drawn to the field largely because of Munich’s unhealthy sanitary conditions in the 1800’s. Over his lifetime, Pettenkofer ended up helping to found the first three hygiene departments in Germany, including the one based in Munich.
Pettenkofer advocated for reform in the food production industry, more spacious and sanitary living conditions, proper sewage disposal, and a system of running water throughout the city. His work was extremely influential and his legacy remains highly visible in Munich’s municipal infrastructure. Furthermore, Pettenkofer worked to secure funding for public health projects.
The Institute of Hygiene was unique in several ways: it was not part of a medical institution and it was focused on environmental aspects of public health.
As such, it was considered to be the most modern Institute of Hygiene in the world at the time. International visitors took note of the benefits of Pettenkofer’s approach and modeled their own institutions after his. One of these institutions was the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.
Later in life, Pettenkofer made a significant mistake, though. His contemporary scientific rival, Robert Koch, was one of the founders of modern bacteriology. Pettenkofer opposed Robert Koch’s theory, that Cholera was caused by a microorganism alone. He thought that environmental factors play an even bigger role than germs in contracting diseases. The spat led Pettenkofer to ingesting the Cholera bacterium in front of several witnesses to prove that it was harmless. And indeed, he only suffered mild symptoms, which he believed proved his theory. However, today we know that Pettenkofer probably had some immunity from a previous Cholera infection and was just lucky not to have died from his experiment!
“The Founders of Modern Medicine: Pasteur, Koch, Lister”. Metchnikoff, Elie, 2006, Classics of Medicine Library, Delanco
“Pettenkofer, Max Josef von.” Claude E. Dolman, 2008, Charles Scribner’s Sons, Encyclopedia.com
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