Subject: biography, biology
German bacteriologist and a pioneer of chemotherapy who discovered the antibacterial effect of Prontosil, the first of the sulphonamide drugs. This important discovery led, in turn, to the development of a range of sulphonamide drugs effective against various bacterial diseases, such as pneumonia and puerperal fever, that previously had high mortality rates. For this achievement Domagk received many honours, including the 1939 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. At the time, however, Germans were forbidden by Adolf Hitler to accept such awards and Domagk did not receive his Nobel medal until 1947, by which time the prize money had reverted to the funds of the Nobel Foundation.
Domagk was born on 30 October 1895 in Lagow, Brandenburg (now in Poland), and studied medicine at Kiel University, graduating - after a period of military service during World War I - in 1921. In 1924 he became reader in pathology at the University of Griefswald then, in the following year, was appointed to a similar position at the University of Münster. In 1927 he accepted an invitation to direct research at the Laboratories for Experimental Pathology and Bacteriology of I G Farbenindustrie, Düsseldorf, a prominent German dye-making company. But he also remained on the staff of Münster University, which appointed him extraordinary professor of general pathology and pathological anatomy in 1928 and a professor in 1958. Domagk died on 24 April 1964 in Burgberg.
Following Paul Ehrlich's discovery of antiprotozoon chemotherapeutic agents, considerable advances had been made in combating protozoon infections but bacterial infections still remained a major cause of death. While working for I G Farbenindustrie, Domagk began systematically to test the new azo dyes in an attempt to find an effective antibacterial agent. In 1932 his industrial colleagues synthesized a new azo dye called Prontosil red, which Domagk found was effective against streptococcal infections in mice. In 1935 he published his discovery, but it received little favourable response. In the following year, however, the British Medical Research Council confirmed his findings, and shortly afterwards the Pasteur Institute in Paris found that the sulphonilamide portion of the Prontosil molecule is responsible for its antibacterial action. (This latter was an important finding because sulphonilamide is much cheaper to produce than is Prontosil.) Meanwhile Domagk had demonstrated the effectiveness of Prontosil in combating bacterial infections in humans. His daughter had accidentally infected herself while working on the clinical trials of Prontosil and, after the failure of conventional treatments, Domagk had cured her with Prontosil.
From about 1938 other sulphonamide drugs were produced that were effective against a number of hitherto serious bacterial diseases, but antibiotics were discovered shortly afterwards and they came to replace sulphonamides as the normal drugs used to treat bacterial infections. Nevertheless, sulphonamides and chemotherapy were - and still are - of great value, particularly in the treatment of antibiotic-resistant infections. In 1946 Domagk and his co-workers found two compounds (eventually produced under the names of Conteben and Tibione) that, although rather toxic, proved useful in treating tuberculosis caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Subsequently Domagk attempted to find chemotherapeutic agents for treating cancer, but was unsuccessful.
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