Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/October 1883/Sketch of Dr. Max von Pettenkofer
"A CHAMPION against the Cholera" is the designation which Dr. Karl Stieler gives to the subject of this sketch, in his admirable biography of him in a former volume of "Daheim," to which we shall be largely indebted for such parts of our own article as are not mere date and detail. Since Dr. Stieler's article was written, Dr. Pettenkofer has distinguished himself by intelligent and thorough investigations in other forms of disease and in more extended fields of sanitary science, to the practical results of which it is impossible to attach too much value.
Max von Pettenkofer was born December 3, 1818, at Lichtenheim, a quiet rural estate not far from Neuberg, on the Danube. When it came time to prepare for his life-career, he went to pursue his studies at Munich, where his uncle was court pharmacist, and there he occupied himself with such branches as were prescribed for students who intended to become physicians—branches which were sharply laid down in an inflexible course, for it at that time seemed a waste, says Dr. Stieler, to study anything that did not pertain to the class-examination. Happily, these studies were suited to the young man's taste; and, when he was graduated Doctor of Medicine in 1843, they pointed to the way which he had chosen. After graduation, led in that direction by Fuchs, he turned his attention to chemistry, and pursued that science, with physics, at Munich and Würzburg, and under Liebig at Giessen, steadily keeping his eye fixed on the relation of these branches to the healing art. In 1845 he was assistant in the chief office of the mint in Munich. In 1847, when not quite twenty-nine years old, he began his work as an academical teacher by accepting an appointment as extraordinary professor in the medical faculty at Munich. Six years later, in 1853, he became a regular professor, having in the mean time succeeded his uncle as director of the court pharmacy. Under his management this establishment became a real scientific laboratory. His first labors were predominantly technological, and related to the affinities of gold, the preparation of platinum, and the hydraulic lime of England and Germany. He also found a process for obtaining illuminating gases from wood, and investigated hæmatinon and aventurine glass. He made studies in oil-colors, in the course of which he discovered a valuable method of preserving oil-paintings.
The peculiar and most evident direction, however, in which his activity manifested itself was in the field of public hygiene, in which he has accomplished an extraordinary amount. His first important efforts in this region were his investigations of heating by stoves and by air, of the conditions of house-ventilation, of the influence of soil upon health, and of the physical relations of clothing. In short, this new domain of knowledge opened itself to him on all sides. The conviction had grown up in Germany that the care a people takes for its public health may be regarded as an index of its advance in civilization. This care, he taught, concerns not only the healing of diseases, but even more the guarding against them; by the side of the care for the sick should stand a regard for the preservation of health, which should avail itself of the most recent results of science, and should be exercised by the state as one of its most pressing duties. That these views so made their way in Bavaria that professorships of hygiene, of which he was assigned to that in the University of Munich, were established in the high-schools of that kingdom, was mainly due to Pettenkofer; and the interest in hygienic matters, which was in other ways, was excited chiefly by his motion.
Hygiene of course acquired an increased importance during epidemics, when disease threatened not individuals only, but whole cities and countries. With this category we enter upon the region which Pettenkofer has made the objective point of his activity. The investigations which he published on the nature and spread of the cholera enjoy an authority that is hardly limited by geographical boundaries. Here, indeed, Science has to contend with many unknown factors, and we should contradict the views of our active investigator himself if we should assume to speak of conclusive results. Nearly all in the present theories is provisory; the most varied points of view are opposed one to another; but, notwithstanding this, the beginnings that have been made, and the few fixed points that have been verified with respect to the questions, are a priceless gain. Hardly any other kind of affliction, observes Dr. Stieler, has been in the past so surrounded with superstitions as that of great epidemics. Thousands of persons were murdered in the middle ages on charges of poisoning wells; and, even after this kind of barbarism had disappeared, the terror remained which every danger excites, before which we stand ignorant and defenseless. We have now entered an age of correct discernment; intelligent investigation has taken the place of superstitious fear, and has neutralized its grievous effects by seeking and finding out natural causes. The ghostly element which seemed peculiar to these diseases has been destroyed, for it is no longer able, after the fashion of ghosts, to evade every attack, but has been made accessible and tangible, like every other enemy. Dr. Pettenkofer has had a great part in bringing about the revolution that has taken place, by taking hold of the ghosts, as it were, and compelling them to stand and receive his attacks; and, instead of resigning himself to their supposed machinations, he has taken the chief and leading part in contending against them. His researches have established, however much we may still contend respecting the ultimate origin of cholera, that three conditions appertain to its outbreak in concrete cases, which may be designated as local, temporal, and that of the individual disposition. What we call the locality must have the infectious matter concealed within itself before persons abiding there are affected. Not every time is alike favorable to the infection; and, when place and time concur, only those persons are affected who offer a suitable personal disposition to the poison. Such persons, even in the worst cases, form hardly five per cent of the population. Thus, the spread of cholera is found to be governed by three factors, the operation of which can be comprehended by all. Further, Dr. Pettenkofer has taught that the danger of attack with cholera does not ordinarily come from persons who are sick, but primarily from the place, showing that the physicians are no more liable than others, and greatly relieving the duty of caring for the sick of its most formidable terrors. The rules respecting disinfection, the discovery of a term, not longer than fourteen days, to which the prevalence of cholera in a particular house is limited, and the prescription of the measures which every one should adopt in the matters of food and drink, clothing and cleanliness, are points of great value for the saving of lives, in which, says Dr. Stieler, Dr. Pettenkofer's determinations have been most definite. If any one makes the objection that these rules contain nothing particularly new, the answer is returned that modern medicine no longer deals in mysterious receipts, but is associated with the nearest and most diversified elements in our life, which not every one knows how to satisfy, or which are neglected because they are commonplace, every-day affairs. It appears now to be the chief purpose of hygiene to convince the masses that the commonest matters are the most important. No science can be less aristocratic, none has to be more intent on popularizing its results. In this popular spirit Dr. Pettenkofer prepared his treatises on "What we can do against the Cholera," and "The Present Condition of the Question of the Cholera." He was president of a cholera commission which met in Berlin at his suggestion, and was a member of the congress which met at Weimar in 1867, with similar objects. His investigations on the cholera, which were afterward extended to typhus and to the various sources of disease in the ground, the air, and the water, have given the impulse to the most comprehensive researches by hosts of inquirers. He constructed an apparatus for exact investigations in respiration, and undertook, in connection with Voit, a series of comprehensive labors on the respiration and nourishment of men and animals, through which many data were collected having an important bearing on the theory of metamorphoses of matter.
Dr. Pettenkofer's works have been published for the most part in professional journals. Since 1842 he has contributed numerous articles in chemistry and kindred subjects to "Büchner's Repertorium," "Dinger's Journal," and the "Denkschrift" of the Munich Academy of Sciences. His principal independent works are "Untersuchungen und Beobachtungen über die Verbreitensart der Cholera" ("Researches and Observations on the Way in which Cholera is spread," Munich, 1855); "Hauptbericht über die Choleraepidemie von 1854 in Bayern" ("Principal Report on the Cholera Epidemic of 1854 in Bavaria," Munich, 1857); "Ueber den Luftwechsel in Wohngebaüden" ("On Change of Air in Dwelling-Houses," Brunswick, 1858); "Die Atmosphärische Luft in Wohngebüauden" ("Atmospheric Air in Dwelling-Houses," Brunswick, 1858); "Cholera regulativ von Griesinger, P. und Wunderlich" ("Cholera regulation, by Griesinger, P. and Wunderlich," Munich, 1866); "Ueber Oelfarbe und Konservirung der Gemälde" ("On Oil-Colors and the Preservation of Pictures," Brunswick, 1869, second edition, 1872); "Verbreitungsart der Cholera in Indien" ("How the Cholera is spread in India," Brunswick, 1871); "Zur Ætiologie des Typhus" ("To the Etiology of Typhus," Munich, 1872); "Beziehungen der Luft zur Kleidung, Wohnung und Boden" ("Relations of the Air to the Clothing, the Dwelling, and the Soil," third edition, Brunswick, 1876); "Ueber den Werth der Gesundheit für eine Stadt" ("On the Value of Health to a City," Brunswick, 1873); "Ueber den Gegenwartigen Stand der Cholerafrage" ("On the Present Condition of the Cholera Question," Munich, 1873); "Kunftige Prophylaxis gegen Cholera" ("Future Prophylaxis against Cholera," Munich, 1875). With Buhl, Radlkofer, and Voit, he has published since 1876 the "Zeitschrift fur Biologie," or "Journal of Biology." Articles from him have been published in "The Popular Science Monthly" on the "Relations of the Air to our Clothing" (vol. x, p. 654); "Relation of the Air to our Houses" (vol. xi, p. 196); "Ground-Air in its Hygienic Relations" (vol. xi, p. 280); "Hygienic Influence of Plants" (vol. xii, p. 417); and the "Sanitary Relations of the Soil" (vol. xx, pp. 332, 468).
Dr. Pettenkofer is a member of long standing of the Academy of Sciences of Munich. In 1880 he received the Royal Order of the Crown.