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E coli’s pioneering paediatrician

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The other day, while leafing idly through the pages of the internet, I discovered that next Tuesday, 15 February (2011), is the centenary of the death of Theodor Escherich. That surname should ring a bell with all pharmacists, since it was he who discovered the intestinal bacterium now named in his honour, Escherichia coli.

Although known mainly for his eponymous bacterium, Escherich deserves to be remembered as a pioneering paediatrician. He was the first doctor to specialise in paediatric infectious diseases, and his work led to great improvements in child care, and particularly in infant hygiene and nutrition.

Escherich was born in 1857 in the Bavarian town of Ansbach. He qualified as a physician in 1881 and soon developed an interest in children’s health care. Because Germany lacked adequate training facilities, he studied paediatrics in Paris and Vienna before starting work in a children’s hospital in Munich.

Believing that bacteriology could solve many paediatric problems, Escherich learnt culture techniques and methods of bacterial characterisation.

His studies of infant stool samples led to the isolation and description of a number of bacteria, including the one we now call E coli, and he was recognised as the leading bacteriologist in paediatrics.

In 1890 he moved to Austria as professor of paediatrics and director of the children’s clinic in Graz and in 1902 he was appointed professor of paediatrics in Vienna, where he directed the St Anna Children’s Hospital.

He campaigned strongly for measures to reduce Vienna’s high rate of infant mortality. Popular and imperial support led to the establishment of the Verein Säuglingsschutz (infants care association) and eventually to the founding of the Imperial Institute for Maternal and Infant Care.

A new children’s clinic was built to his plans at the St Anna Hospital. But on 14 February 1911, just a few days before it was due to open, Escherich developed a headache and began behaving oddly. He died the next day of an apparent stroke, aged just 53.

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