About Max von Pettenkofer

Max von Pettenkofer (1818-1901) is the namesake of the Pettenkofer School of Public Health (PSPH). He is considered one of the founders of scientific hygiene and modern public health research. The physician, pharmacist and chemist did not regard health as a medical problem, but also as a social and economic problem. In his time this was a revolutionary view.

 

In 1847, Pettenkofer was appointed professor of medicinal chemistry at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) Munich. At that time he was only 19 years old. Later, Pettenkofer even headed the LMU Munich as rector. In 1865, also in Munich, he took over the first German professorship for hygiene and built the first hygiene institute from 1876 to 1879.

 

Today's Munich sewerage and drinking water supply system is largely due to Max von Pettenkofer's initiatives. When cholera broke out in the city in 1854, the scientist was commissioned to study the ways in which the disease spread. His assumption was that the poor hygienic conditions were mainly responsible for the outbreak of the disease. At his suggestion, the city of Munich began construction of an extensive sewage system, which is still in operation today.

 

His dispute with Robert Koch is famous. In contrast to his competitor from Berlin, Max von Pettenkofer did not believe that cholera could spread via the recently discovered comma bacillus. To substantiate his point of view, he even drank a solution with the pathogen in front of witnesses on October 7, 1892. He survived and got away with diarrhoea. It is unclear whether Pettenkofer was simply lucky or whether he was still resistant due to earlier contact with the pathogen. Another theory is that his students may have secretly boiled the solution in advance.

 

Despite this error, scientists from all over the world visited Pettenkofer's institute in the 19th century to learn from his work. His concepts and methods thus shaped the development of public health in many countries.  The founding of the renowned Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health - one of the leading academic public health institutions in the USA - is partly due to a visit to the Pettenkofers Institute in Munich.