Steps towards the discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis by Robert Koch, 1882


  • E. Cambau,

    1. APHP, Service de Bactériologie, Hôpitaux universitaires Lariboisière-Saint Louis, Paris, France
    2. Université Paris Diderot, EA3964, Paris, France
    3. Centre national de référence des mycobactéries et résistance des mycobactéries aux antituberculeux, Paris, France
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    • E. Cambauon—on behalf of ESGMYC (Study group of ESCMID on mycobacterial infections).
  • M. Drancourt

    Corresponding author
    1. Méditerranée Infection, Aix-Marseille Université, URMITE, UM63, CNRS 7278, IRD198, Inserm 1095, Marseille, France
    • Corresponding author: M. Drancourt, Unité de Recherche sur les Maladies Infectieuses et Tropicales Emergentes, Faculté de Médecine, 27, Boulevard Jean Moulin, Marseille Cedex 5, France


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Palaeomicrobiology has detected the tuberculosis agent in animal and human skeletons that are thousands of years old. The German doctor Robert Koch was the first microbiologist to report in 1882 the successful isolation of the causative agent of tuberculosis, named 1 year later as Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This immense discovery, however, was not made from scratch, but involved the combining of previous scientific knowledge, chiefly the previous demonstration by the French doctor Jean-Antoine Villemin that tuberculosis was a transmissible disease, and two innovations—a new staining procedure that allowed R. Koch to consistently observe the new organism in tuberculous lesions, and use of a solidified, serum-based medium instead of broths for the culture. These innovations allowed R. Koch not only to isolate M. tuberculosis from animal and patient specimens for the first time, but also to reproduce the disease in experimentally inoculated guinea pigs. It is thanks to R. Koch that one of the most lethal diseases in human history could be diagnosed, could be treated and cured after the discovery of streptomycin 65 years later, and could be efficiently prevented by isolation of cases. His microbiological innovations are now being renewed with molecular and improved culture-based detection being the twenty-first century weapons in the fight against this disease, which remains a major killer.