Sunday, January 22, 2012

Albert Ludwig Sigesmund Neisser

Albert Ludwig Sigesmund Neisser was born on January 22, 1855 in Scheidnitz a town near Breslau, Prussia (now the Polish city of Worclaw). His father, Moritz Neisser was a well known Jewish physician and was widowed when Neisser was 1 year old. Consequently Neisser was raised by his stepmother. Neisser attended elementary school and then gymnasium in Breslau. At the gymnasium young Neisser met young Paul Ehrlich, beginning a lifelong friendship. He began attending the University of Breslau in 1872, but moved to Erlagen and the university there, graduating with a medical degree in 1877. Initially Neisser opted for a residency as an internist, but unable to get it he instead took a residency in dermatology.  After completing his training he took a junior faculty position at the University of Leipzig in 1880.

It was during his residency that Neisser made both of his principal discoveries. At the time of his residency the practice of dermatology was combined with vernereology, the study of sexually transmitted diseases. In 1879, at the age of 24, Neisser published his first and most famous paper where he described "micrococci" in smears, stained with methyl violet, isolated from 25 men and 9 women with purulent urethritis and two patients with acute ophthalmia, but not from patients with syphilis or balanitis.  At the time there was still confusion about the identities about the causative organisms of gonorrhea and syphilis and Neisser's discovery of what would be identified as the causative agent of gonorrhea was a step in alleviating this confusion.  The "micrococci" isolated by Neisser would later be named Neisseria gonorrhoeae in Neisser's honor.  Cocci (pronounced kok-see) is the word microbiologists use to describe generally spherically shaped bacteria.

Neisser's other important discovery was the co-discovery of the causative agent of leprosy.  Before his discovery it was believed that leprosy was a combination of inherited and environmental factors. In 1874 Norwegian physician Armaur Hansen had isolated "staff like bodies, much like bacteria" from leprous tissue imperfectly stained with osmotic acid, but he was unsure if they were the cause the disease.  In 1879 Neisser visited Norway and took home tissues from leprous patients, most of them given to him by Hansen, and using more advanced staining techniques he identified rod shaped bacilli that he and colleagues thought were a new species and possibly the cause of leprosy. Bacilli (pronounced buh-sil-ahy) is the word microbiologists use to describe rod shaped bacteria. Because in his paper Neisser did not ancknowledge Hansen's earlier finding there emerged a dispute over the priority of the discovery between Neisser and Hansen.Today Hansen is generally given the priority.

Nessier spent two years at the University of Leipzig after which he returned to the University of Breslau as associate professor and director of the dermatology clinic.  Neisserr remained at the University of Breslau for the remaining 34 years of his life. Under his influence the Breslau clinic became an important center for dermatological research and Neisser made contributions to the understanding of many dermatological diseases including anthrax, actinomycosis, psoriasis, mycosis fungoides, and vitiligio. Neisser spent much effort to study syphilis, but was never able to isolate the causative agent. In 1892 in the attempt to give immunity to syphilis, without their knowledge or consent, he injected four young prostitutes with serum from syphilitic patients. All four subsequently developed syphilis and Neisser was condemned for "maliciously inoculating children with syphilis poison".

Through his work at the Breslau dermatology clinic Neisser was a staunch advocate for public health and promoted preventive and educational measures against sexually transmitted diseases.  In 1899 he co-founded the German Dermatological Society and in 1902 the German Society for Combating Venereal Disease. In 1905 and 1906 Nessier traveled to Java to study the possible transmission of syphilis between apes and humans.  He later co-operated with August Paul von Wassermann to develop a test for the causative agent of syphilis and worked with his school friend Paul Ehrlich in testing Salvarsan or "formula 606" an arsenic compound which was the first chemotherapeutic treatment for syphilis.

Neisser died of septicemia on July 16, 1916.


Benedek, Thomas G.; "Albert L. Neisser (1855-1916), Microbiologist and Venerologist"; reprinted at

Oriel, J.D.; "Eminent Venereologists: 1. Albert Neisser"; Genitourinary Medicine (1989)65:229-234

Albert Ludwig Sigesmund Neisser Wikipedia Entry

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