The German Jewish physician and scientist Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) was the precursor of staining techniques for tissues, worked on the development of a anti-serum to combat diphtheria and his laboratory was responsible for the first treatment available for syphilis, arsphenamine. He was the first to coin the term “chemotherapy”, and received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908 for his contributions to immunology.

Dr Ehrlich searched for a chemical that could not only  stain but also attach itself to  a germ and kill it, without causing harm to the patient’s body. He called them “magic bullets”, these chemicals injected in the body to fight diseases. After 606 tries, he finds a magic bullet to combat syphilis, arsphenamine (commercialized as Salvarsan) and calls this substance 606. However this discovery seems to be short-lived as 38 patients die of arsenic poisoning contained in the substance. Later his laboratory developed a more soluble and diluted formula, with less severe side effects. The arsenic compounds were  substituted by penicillin for the treatment of syphilis in the 1940s.

Ehrlich’s history is narrated along “Dr Ehrlich’s magic bullet”, a 1940 autobiographical film directed by William Dieterle. His discovery of staining techniques and the development of the serum to combat diphtheria, working with his colleague Emil von Behring, are remarkable – and indeed saves the lives of many children during the epidemics of the disease. Later, while working with good results with Sahachiro Hata on 606 for syphilis, Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) is forced by medical practitioners to release the drug for commercial use. He hesitates from a scientific point of view, but concedes in light of  the urgency of treatment. The drug is produced in large scale in Europe, and Ehrlich ends  up being judged by 38 deaths caused by 606. He is defended in court by his colleague Emil von Behring, who claims that despite these deaths, 606 was a success in many cases against a disease that was considered incurable until then.

Near his death, the world is on the verge of a war, and Ehrlich gives a speech to his trainees and collaborators in his bed:

“606 works, we know. The magic bullet will cure thousands. The principle upon which it works will serve against other diseases, many others, I think. But there can be no final victory against diseases of the body unless diseases of the soul are also overcome. They feed upon each other, diseases of the body, diseases of the soul. In days to come, there will be epidemics of greed, hate, ignorance. We must fight them in life as we fought syphilis in the laboratory. Fight. Fight. You must never stop fighting.” (*)

Virna Teixeira

(*) Peter E. Dans. Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Aah (Medi-press: Bloomington, Illinois, 2000).