Sunday, February 21, 2010

August Paul von Wassermann

August Paul von Wassermann was born on February 21, 1866, in Bamberg Germany. He was the son of a Bavarian court banker Angelo Wassermann (who was elevated to hereditary nobility in 1910) and Dora Bauer. He attended the Gymnasium at Bamberg and studied medicine at the Universities of Erlangen, Vienna, and Munich. He graduated with his medical degree from the University of Strasbourg in 1888.

He joined Robert Koch's newly established Institute for Infectious Diseases in 1891 as an unpaid assistant under Bernhard Proskauer. In 1893 he became a temporary assistant working on the problems related to cholera. In 1895 he became the inspecting physician at the Institute's control station for diphtheria. In 1902 he became the director of the clinical division of the Institute. In 1913 he left the Institute to become the director of the department of experimental therapy at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, a position he held until his death.

Wassermann was quick to understand the importance of the young science of bacteriology and he made the acquaintance of Paul Ehrlich of whom he became a pupil and colleague. After 1900 he became interested in complement, which was still being investigated. Complement is series of serum proteins that functions as a part of the immune system which, in concert with antibodies, attach to invading bacteria to cause lysis and phagocytosis (see here for the Wikipedia article on the complement system). Starting in 1901 Wassermann unsuccessfully worked to develop a complement based test to diagnose tuberculosis. Later, in 1906, working with Albert Neisser, he developed a complement based test to detect antibodies to the causative agent for syphilis. This test, known as the Wassermann test, was widely used to diagnose syphilis, was developed only one year after the discovery of the causative agent by Fritz Richard Schaudinn and Paul Erich Hoffmann.

During World War I, Wassermann's research was curtailed and eventually suspended completely. During the war he served as a hygienist and bacteriologist, supervising epidemic control on the eastern front. In 1924 he began to suffer from Bright's disease, which took his life on March 16, 1925.


Firkin, Barry G. and Whitworth Judith A.; "Wasserman Test" in Dictionary of Medical Eponyms, Second Edition, Paperback; Informa Healthcare, 2001

"August Paul von Wassermann" at

"A First Cure for Syphlis" at the Magnus Hirschfield Archive for Sexology, hosted at

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