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One hundred years since the ‘Magic Bullet’

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29/04/2009

By | From the Collections

 Chemical formulae headed "Salvarsanpraparate", Paul Ehrlich. Wellcome Images No.L0012361.

Chemical formulae headed “Salvarsanpraparate”, Paul Ehrlich.
Wellcome Images No.L0012361.

In 1909 Paul Ehrlich, working with his Japanese student Sahachiro Hata at the National Institute for Experimental Therapeutics in Frankfurt, discovered that the 606th substance tested in their attempts to discover a specific chemotherapeutic agent to cure syphilis, the arsphenamine compound named ‘Salvarsan’ did in fact destroy the spirochaete, treponema pallidum, which caused syphilis.

In the early years of the twentieth century this sexually-transmitted disease was a major public health problem: it had long-term lingering effects on the infected individual, and was also the cause of much disability in their offspring.

The discovery of Salvarsan was also an important breakthrough in the development of specifically targeted chemotherapeutic agents. It was rapidly taken up by the medical profession, replacing the previous much less efficacious treatment with mercury.

Its history is reflected in a number of archival collections in the Wellcome Library: the Paul Ehrlich transcripts include his work on arsphenamine, case-notes among the papers of Surgeon-General Knapp, RN (GC/85) show the early use of salvarsan trreatment in the Royal Navy, while Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s index cards of autopsies include some early deaths from toxic side-effects while dosage levels were still being worked out. These are also documented (with other material on Salvarsan) in the papers of Frederick Parkes Weber.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the supply of Salvarsan (and the later developed Neosalvarsan) was cut off since they were produced in Germany. Substitutes – Kharsivan and Neokharsivan – were developed and manufactured by Burroughs Wellcome and Co Ltd. Further information can be found in the company records.

Contemporaneously, the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases (1913-1916) was hearing evidence on the best and most effective ways to bring this radical new treatment and sufferers together. Its reports and minutes of evidence are held in the Library.

Other items of relevance in the Wellcome Library, besides numerous printed works, include the 1974 BBC educational film The Search for the Magic Bullet as well as the famous Hollywood movie, starring Edward G Robinson (better known his gangster roles) as Ehrlich, Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940).

Although it was replaced in the 1940s by penicillin, a treatment which took much less time and had far fewer dangerous side-effects, Salvarsan and its clones played a major role in the reduction of syphilitic infection in the UK between the two world wars.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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