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Gerhard Domagk was born in 1895 in Lagow, Brandenburg, as the son of a teacher. At the age of 20, Domagk — who would later go on to win a Nobel Prize — was confronted with the supposed limits of medicine through his experiences in World War I. At that time, operations that were initially successful were often marred by fatal infectious diseases such as gangrene or gas gangrene. The antiseptic properties of the then-common substances chlorine water and carbolic acid did not last long enough to effectively combat these diseases.
In 1914 Domagk received his diploma from secondary school in Liegnitz and began a course of study in human medicine at the University of Kiel in the same year. After having to interrupt his studies for a time due to the war, he received his doctorate in 1921. His post-doctoral qualification was obtained in 1924 at the Pathological Institute of the University of Greifswald.
In 1927 the attention of Professor Heinrich Hoerlein was drawn to Domagk's post-doctoral thesis entitled "Destroying infectious diseases through the reticuloendothelium and the development of amyloid." He recruited the young scientist to the pharmaceutical department in Elberfeld.
In 1932, while searching for a way to combat bacterial infections by chemical means, Domagk stumbled upon the active substance dimethyl benzyl dodecyl ammonium chloride, which was later launched on the market as a 10 percent solution under the trade name Zephirol. Zephirol's intensive antibacterial effect and good skin compatibility quickly made the product an indispensable and universally applicable skin disinfectant that is still used today for disinfecting hands and instruments.
Encouraged by his success in destroying pathogens outside the body, the researcher began looking for ways to combat bacteria inside the body as well. He conducted intensive research based on the antibacterial properties of sulfonamide groups in azo dyestuffs.
The substance D 4145 showed promise in studies involving the chemotherapeutic treatment of streptococcal infections. After two more years of research, Domagk had developed a highly effective substance that was introduced to the market in 1935 under the trade name Prontosil. This drug for the first time enabled even the most severe coccal infections to be treated. The rate of death from diseases such as meningitis, childbed fever and pneumonia declined sharply. It was primarily for the discovery of Prontosil that Domagk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1939. However, he did not receive the official certificate until after World War II, as the Hitler regime had boycotted the Nobel Committee and German scientists were not permitted to accept the prize.
Thanks to Domagk's intensive research, further progress was soon reported in the fight against pulmonary tuberculosis, which had proven difficult to treat. In the mid-1950s, the Bayer researcher developed an extremely well-tolerated combination therapy in the Central Scientific Laboratory in Leverkusen.
Gerhard Domagk died on April 24, 1964 as a result of cardiac degeneration.