Robert Koch: a name of shame?

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Today we are looking back at the career of Robert Koch, the Nobel prize-winning microbiologist and discoverer of the tuberculosis pathogen. Given these achievements, why are some calling for his name to be removed from Germany’s famed disease control agency? Read on to find out!


Jörg & Axel

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Robert Koch: a name that shames Germany’s disease control agency?

Two phenomena of 2020 have collided to create a question that could stand as a Leitmotif for the year. 

Firstly, the coronavirus pandemic has propelled Germany’s disease control agency - the Robert Koch Institute - to worldwide fame, due to its (at least initial) success in handling the crisis.

Secondly, 2020 has been the year of culture wars, with left-wing activists ripping down statues of colonial heroes and demanding that dubious historical figures have their names removed from street signs.

Put the two together and the result is an almost inevitable question: should Germany’s disease control agency be named after Robert Koch, a man whose activities in east Africa at the dawn of the 20th century were (in the words of the agency that carries his name) “the darkest chapter in his career”?

Koch, who was born into a well-off family in the mid-19th century , started his career as a small town physician, before his work analysing bacteria took him to Berlin. His discovery that infectious diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis were transmitted by bacteria shot him to global fame

These were revolutionary discoveries. Up until then, it had been presumed that tuberculosis, which killed every seventh German in the mid-19th century, was an inherited disease. 

The advancement of cholera from India into Europe was perhaps the Covid-19 of its day - a disease that spread rapidly across a newly globalized world. After thousands of people in Hamburg died during an outbreak, the port city turned to Koch, who instructed them to start filtering their drinking water and disinfecting the homes of the sick.

But his discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which led to a Noble prize, also showed that he wasn’t always a medic of the highest ethical standards. He rushed his wundermittel, tuberkulin, onto the market without it going through rigorous testing. News of the remedy was initially met with euphoria, but it soon turned out that it did nothing to protect people against the disease. On the contrary, it could actually cause death.

Koch was accused by contemporaries of trying to make a fast buck. So, to prove he had no fear of tuberkulin’s consequences, he administered it to his wife, whom he reportedly told: “you will likely become very sick, but you certainly won’t die.”

While that type of scandal would undoubtedly cost a modern microbiologist his career, Koch shook it off by travelling to Egypt and then India, where he carried out successful research on the cholera pathogen.

But it was a mission several years later that has become the object of modern criticism.

In 1906 he travelled to the colony of German East Africa where the sleeping sickness was having a devastating effect on local populations. One imperial official estimated that half of the villagers in his district on the shores of Lake Tanganyika had fallen victim to the disease.

Koch decided to give his patients doses of a drug called Atoxyl, which contained arson. When the drug only proved to be temporarily effective, Koch increased the dosage: the side effects included severe muscle pains and blindness. Every tenth patient died.

According to historian Jürgen Zimmerer:

The fact that Atoxyl could lead to blindness could be found in the technical literature, and Koch should have known that. Perhaps he didn’t take note of it because he had a distaste for the minutiae of scientific research, or perhaps he believed that different rules of precaution applied to Africans. Either way, he showed gross negligence.

It wasn’t just Koch’s use of such a controversial drug that has been criticized. He also recommended that the sickly be interned in camps. Protocols from the time show that imperial officials were frustrated that the local population was unwilling to cooperate with quarantining rules. Their solution was to lock them up, when necessary by force. Koch advocated this approach too, suggesting that whole villages where an outbreak had occurred be isolated in camps.

Writing in der Spiegel, Zimmerer has argued that the German government should change the name of its disease agency, saying that “a government that is serious about addressing its colonial legacy cannot use Robert Koch as a role model.”

Provocatively, a section of Zimmerer’s article is titled “Menschenversuche und Konzentrationslager” (experiments on humans and concentration camps) which inevitably makes a German reader think of the Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele, a man notorious for his experiments on Jewish inmates at Auschwitz.

At this point, what seems to be a worthwhile attempt to highlight the complexity of Koch’s legacy tips into a gratuitous character assassination.

Mengele, lest we forget, deliberately infected children with diseases and amputated healthy limbs before sending his victims to the gas chamber. Koch was attempting to treat a population that was affected by an endemic disease, which, when left untreated, has a mortality rate of close to 100 percent.

Facil Tesfaye, an Ethiopian political scientist, conducted research on Koch’s travels in Africa and came to a different conclusion. Speaking in Berlin in 2011, he said he was sympathetic to Koch’s use of Atoxyl, explaining that “it was the only thing they had at the time.”

Tesfaye was more critical of the fact that Koch didn’t work with local medicine men. This refusal, he argues, led to the collapse of traditional institutions, which had learned ways of coping with endemic illness, even if not to the same standards as western medicine.

What Koch’s personal motivations were during his research in east Africa is hard to ascertain from the renewed interest in his work. One quote that is often cited seems to affirm his reputation as an egomaniac, primarily motivated by a desire to be first.

“At home everything has been done. There is so much competition now that there isn’t much point in conducting research there anymore,” Koch wrote during his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa in 1903. “But out here the streets are covered in scientific gold. I’ve seen and learned so many new things since I first came to Africa!”

Harder to judge is whether Koch, like his imperial funders, saw black Africans as a source of labour whose health was judged in economic terms, or whether he was motivated by a sense of empathy for their well-being.

In the grander scheme of things, Koch’s personal motivations are perhaps not that relevant. It is worth noting that his assistant on the controversial trip of 1906/07 was a doctor called Friedrich Karl Kleine.

In 1920, Kleine brought a German-made medicine known as Germanin to the region of modern-day Zambia. It proved almost 100 percent effective against sleeping sickness. According to the Robert Koch Institute, the drug continues to be used today against a disease that still causes tens of thousands of deaths a year.


Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.