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By Selina Hurley on

Happy Birthday Nobel

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded 110 years ago. They were named after Alfred Nobel who made a provision in his will for annual prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace. Prize winners are announced every June and awarded in December.

Unsurprisingly, a large number of Nobel Prize winners are represented in the Science Museum’s collections and over the course of the year we’ll highlight a few of them in this blog.

The first prize winner in the Physiology and Medicine category was Emil Adolf von Behring (1854-1917).

Emil Adolf von Behring, 1909 (Wellcome Images)

Behring won his Nobel Prize for his discovery that blood or serum from another animal immune to a disease such as tetanus could be used to treat other animals (including humans) with the disease. The blood of an infected animal produces antitoxins that could by used to treat others effectively.

Bottle of Behring's original tetanus serum and packet, c 1915 (© Science Museum / Science & Society)

Behring’s breakthrough meant an antitoxin could be developed for tetanus and diphtheria in 1890. You might notice the date of the serum packaging. During the First World War, soldiers would be immunised against a raft of diseases they might encounter in crowded conditions.

Diphtheria causes a membrane to grow over tissues in the mouth and in severe cases into the lungs. After 1850, diphtheria was the principle cause of death of young children in the US and Europe.

Before Behring’s antitoxin intubation techniques were used aid breathing such as this set developed in 1882 by American physician, Joseph O’Dwyer but could not cure the disease.

O'Dwyer intubation set, 1902-1920 (1981-2038, Science Museum, London)

Today, widespread vaccination programmes have controlled the spread of the disease. UNICEF aims to vaccinate all children against the six main childhood killer diseases: tuberculosis, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria, measles and polio.

Poster advertising vaccination in Burkina Faso, 1980s (1994-441, Science Museum, London)