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Why was Gerhard Domagk awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1939?

Learning Outcomes:

* To understand why the development of chemical antibiotics was a turning point in the treatment of disease.
* To identify and evaluate the relative significance of different factors in contributing to the discovery eg role of the individual, communication within the scientific community, scientific technology.

Video Starter: Doctor Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940)

Watch this extract from the film Doctor Ehrlich's Magic Bullet. Make a note of the different factors that enabled Ehrlich to succeed. If you want to check, or add further detail, use these links: This day in Tech History, Magic Bullets.

Main Activity

Adapted from my worksheet on Infectious Disease.


On a printout of this page, or copy of the worksheet: Highlight the KEY WORDS. For example, names of Scientists, things that inspired them or ways in which they made their discovery, names of the drugs they created or of the microbe that was discovered. Also highlight anything that the development may have led to. For revision purposes it may be WISE to colour code your highlighting. For example: Names in Red, Developments in green, Drugs in Yellow etc.


The period 1870-1950 saw a rapid development in the amount of knowledge of microbes, germs and the way in which these caused disease. By the late 1870’s medical practitioners had accepted the work of Lister and had realised that not only was his formula to combat germs required: but also a method of killing Germs inside the body was required to improve mortality rates.

As the recognition of this need was made doctors and scientists were more willing to search for the cure. A young German doctor named Paul Ehrlich joined the team of Koch. Ehrlich, working with Emi Behring, developed an interest in the antibodies that the human body produces. His studies of these led him to believe that a chemical substance could be produced to work alongside these antibodies, killing specific bacteria without harming the rest of the body.

This line of research led to Ehrlich opening his own research institute, to search for ‘The Magic Bullet’. His results were a limited success: he found dyes that attacked malaria and some sleeping sickness bugs. In 1906 the detection by Hoffman of the microbes that caused syphilis opened up a new line of research. Ehrlich’s team tested over 600 chemical compounds, searching for one that would target and destroy the syphilis germ. In 1909, a new scientist joined his team. He was asked to retest all of the discarded chemicals that had previously been shown to fail. The 606th compound selected and destroyed the germ. Ehrlich rigorously tested the vaccine and in 1911 Savarsan 606 was used for the first time on Humans.

Gerhard Domagk: Sulphonamide drugs

Domagk was a chemist who was inspired by the achievements of Paul Ehrlich’s team. He set out to find dyes that would destroy other infectious microbes within the body. Domagk was very thorough in his work and in 1932 discovered that a dye called prontosil would act against he streptococcus virus. This discovery was then developed by French scientists who found that the drug could also be used against tonsillitis, puerperal fever and scarlet fever. May and baker, British scientists, discovered that a derivative of the sulphonamide drug could be used against pneumonia.

There were though several disadvantages to this drug. Sulphonamide drugs can damage the kidney, liver and are ineffective against highly virulent microbes.


- To what extent was the work of Ehrlich, Domagk, Fleming, Florey and Chain reliant upon the work of Pasteur and Koch?

- What factors led to the development of a 'magic bullet'?

- Write an article explaining why Gerhard Domagk was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1939. This should include Domagk’s importance as an individual but also acknowledge the role of other factors.

Use the following links to find further information about Domagk: - the Nocel Prize websites biography of Gerhard Domagk.

Wikipedia - biography of Domagk.



Play this En Garde gamefrom Winkers World to test your knowledge of Magic Bullets





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