First use of chemotherapy: Aug. 31, 1909

German scientist Paul Ehrlich had already won the Nobel Prize for Medicine the previous year for his work in immunology, but now he’s focused on a new aspect of research. He’s hoping to prove his theory that chemicals could be custom made to target and kill infections within a person’s body without seriously harming the rest of his or her body.

He watches closely as his graduate assistant, Sahachiro Hata, injects a chemical into a rabbit with syphilitic ulcers.  Within a day, no living syphilis bacteria can be found in the rabbit and within three weeks, the ulcers have disappeared.  It confirms Ehrlich’s contention that chemicals could serve as “magic bullets” to treat diseases. He calls this approach to medicine “chemotherapy.”

In the ensuing months, Ehrlich and Hata did more tests on mice, guinea pigs and more rabbits and, convinced of the chemical’s effectiveness, they began working with a German chemical company to mass produce it. Soon 65,000 free samples were sent to doctors around the world to use in clinical trials. The medication was an instant success and the drug, named Salvarsan, was soon in great demand. It became  the most common treatment for syphilis until penicillin became available in the 1940s.  The city of Frankfurt named a street  in Ehrlich's honor.

But Ehrlich came under fire in some quarters for developing a treatment that critics said promoted promiscuity. And more serious accusations would soon follow.  While he made a point of warning about the drug’s potential toxicity if it wasn’t injected directly into a vein—it was, after all, more than 30 percent arsenic—reports were published about patients who were maimed or died at the hands of doctors who failed to administer it properly.

Critics accused him of marketing a dangerous drug with the purpose of getting rich and in 1914, a Frankfurt newspaper went so far as to report that not only was Salvarsan a fraud, but that Ehrlich had tested it on prostitutes against their will. The paper was sued for libel and eventually the newspaper’s publisher was sentenced to a year in prison.

Ehrlich’s name was cleared, but later that year he suffered a stroke.  The following year, with Ehrlich reportedly depressed over the escalation of World War I, he had another stroke, which he didn’t survive.  Twenty years later, after the Nazis had taken control of Germany, the signs on the street named after Ehrlich were torn down because he was Jewish.

But in the U.S. he was celebrated in a 1940 movie titled “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet.”  The screenplay was written by none other than John Huston and one of its stars was Ruth Gordon. The role of Paul Ehrlich, was played by Edward G. Robinson.

More Slices of History

Theory of evolution published: Aug. 20, 1858
Siamese twins come to America: Aug. 16, 1829
Aspirin created: Aug. 10, 1897
Medicare is born: July 30, 1965
First "test-tube" baby: July 25, 1978
Kissing banned: July 16, 1439
Seat belt patented: July 10, 1962Birth of SPAM: July 5, 1937
Dancing hysteria: June 24, 1374
First kidney transplant: June 17, 1950
Alcoholics Anonymous born: June 10, 1935
Bizarre stomach experiment: June 6, 1822
Heimlich maneuver born: June 1, 1974
Toothpaste in tubes: May 22, 1892
The First Vaccination: May 14, 1786
The Pill Arrives: May 9, 1960
Hello, Cheerios: May 1, 1941