Schick Introduces a Test for Diphtheria Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Béla Schick developed a skin test for determining an individual’s susceptibility to diphtheria.

Summary of Event

Diphtheria is a serious disease of the upper respiratory tract—the mouth, nose, and pharynx. The person with this disease may have a fever, a sore throat, and pain all over the body. If the disease is not treated with antibiotics, the infection spreads and causes tissue damage in the heart or kidneys and the victim will eventually die. Diphtheria;testing Medicine;diphtheria Diseases;diphtheria Schick test [kw]Schick Introduces a Test for Diphtheria (1913) [kw]Diphtheria, Schick Introduces a Test for (1913) Diphtheria;testing Medicine;diphtheria Diseases;diphtheria Schick test [g]Austria;1913: Schick Introduces a Test for Diphtheria[03310] [c]Health and medicine;1913: Schick Introduces a Test for Diphtheria[03310] Schick, Béla Klebs, Edwin Löffler, Friedrich August Johannes Roux, Pierre-Paul-Émile Yersin, Alexandre Behring, Emil von

Diphtheria is caused by Corynebacterium diphtheriae, a rod-shaped species of bacteria. The bacterium can be spread from one person to another by touching or by droplets (for example, from sneezes). Once it enters a person’s body, the bacterium releases protein toxins that destroy the membranes and inner structures of cells.

In the 1800’s, this disease was not yet understood, but the first steps toward that task were taken. Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and other microbiologists (scientists who study organisms too small to be seen by the naked eye) established the germ theory of disease, Germ theory of disease showing that infectious diseases Infection;diseases Diseases;infectious are carried by microorganisms, usually bacteria or viruses. Diphtheria, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and several other diseases were major killers in the nineteenth century, especially among patients in hospitals. Microbiologists were determined to discover the microorganisms that caused these diseases.

In 1883, the German microbiologists Edwin Klebs and Friedrich August Johannes Löffler raised guinea pigs infected with diphtheria. Under microscopes, they observed rod-shaped bacteria growing in blood samples from the infected animals. When this bacterium was injected into healthy guinea pigs, they became ill with diphtheria, too. In this way, the scientists proved that this rod-shaped bacterium was the cause of diphtheria.

Löffler believed that these bacteria hurt their victims by releasing a toxin (a chemical that damages cells). In 1888, microbiologists Pierre-Paul-Émile Roux and Alexandre Yersin, working together at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, separated the diphtheria bacteria from the serum in which they were being grown. Roux and Yersin then injected the bacteria-free serum into healthy animals. The animals soon came down with diphtheria, even though they had not been exposed to the bacteria. The scientists realized that a toxin was being released by the Corynebacterium diphtheriae into the growth serum, and that it was this toxin that made people and animals ill.

Now microbiologists could go to work finding a vaccine Vaccines;diphtheria Diphtheria;antitoxin and designing methods of diagnosing and treating diphtheria victims. In 1890, German microbiologist Emil von Behring discovered that the blood of animals infected with diphtheria produced an antitoxin, a chemical that binds to a toxin and makes it harmless. Behring realized that the antitoxin might be helpful in producing a vaccine to protect people against diphtheria. He injected animals with weakened diphtheria toxin—just enough so that their immune systems would create antitoxin but not enough to hurt the animals. Unfortunately, this diphtheria toxin was too dangerous to use on humans. Behring’s work, however, led to the later use of diphtheria antitoxin produced in horses as a treatment for human victims of the disease. In 1923, a formalin-treated toxin was used to vaccinate people against diphtheria and was found to be safe.

In 1908, Béla Schick, a pediatrician and microbiologist from Boglár, Hungary, became an assistant to Theodor Escherich Escherich, Theodor at the University of Vienna, Austria. These two scientists began studying diseases caused by bacteria, including diphtheria and scarlet fever. In 1913, Schick used Behring’s work with antitoxins to develop a test that would show how susceptible a person was to catching diphtheria. The result was the Schick test, which proved to be simple and reliable. About 0.1 milliliter of a weakened toxin solution is injected just under the skin inside a patient’s arm. The toxin is treated so that it will lead to a bit of swelling in susceptible persons without hurting them. If the patient is susceptible to diphtheria, a reddened, swollen rash (caused by damaged skin cells) will appear around the injection site within a few days. A person who is not susceptible will have no reaction, because the toxin is not causing damage.

Those with positive results on the Schick test should be immunized. People who are already suffering from diphtheria can be treated with a combination of antibiotics and horse serum antitoxin. Antibiotics destroy the Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria, while the horse serum antitoxin destroys the diphtheria toxin until the victim’s body is strong enough to make enough of its own antitoxin.


Schick’s test for diphtheria became a valuable tool for identifying the disease and which people most needed immunization. As a result of his work, Schick was named Extraordinary Professor of Children’s Diseases at the University of Vienna in 1918. His test saved thousands of lives, especially among children, who tend to be susceptible to diphtheria. In the mid- to late 1920’s, when the first successful toxoid vaccine was available, the number of cases of diphtheria around the world dropped dramatically.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, before the test and vaccine were available, the United States alone saw between 150,000 and 200,000 diphtheria cases every year. By the 1970’s, the number of diphtheria cases in the United States had dropped to roughly 10 per year.

The work of Schick and others also helped show how microorganisms are present everywhere in the environment and can cause disease once they are inside the human body. This led to a better understanding of the importance of antisepsis and sterilization. Before the 1900’s, surgical instruments were kept clean, but they were never sterile (clear of all microorganisms); as a result, many patients died after surgery. Microbiological research in Schick’s day led to the sterilization of surgical equipment, antiseptic treatment to keep all hospital rooms and equipment clean, and sanitation efforts aimed at keeping water supplies pure. Diphtheria;testing Medicine;diphtheria Diseases;diphtheria Schick test

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Audesirk, Teresa, Gerald J. Audesirk, and Bruce E. Byers. Biology: Life on Earth. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2004. Introductory biology textbook for undergraduates, both biology majors and others, provides a strong overview of the subject. Clearly written and well illustrated, with excellent discussion of bacteria and description of how the human body fights infection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eisen, Herman N. Immunology: An Introduction to Molecular and Cellular Principles of the Immune Responses. 2d ed. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1980. Introductory immunology textbook for advanced undergraduate and graduate students offers a comprehensive, detailed presentation of the cellular biochemistry behind the immune system. Describes antibody production, skin responses to certain infections, and how vaccines stimulate the immune system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gebhardt, Louis P. Microbiology. 5th ed. St. Louis: C. V. Mosby, 1975. Concise introductory microbiology textbook for undergraduates provides an excellent survey of the science and its history and stresses microbiological applications in everyday life. Presents comprehensive coverage of every branch of microbiology in a manner accessible to the layperson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, John G., et al., eds. Bergey’s Manual of Determinative Bacteriology. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1994. Information-packed manual for microbiologists offers a comprehensive guide for classifying bacteria based on various characteristics. Describes in detail every major group of bacteria, including microscopic shape and appearance, growth patterns, and responses to chemical treatments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mader, Sylvia S. Biology. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Introductory textbook for undergraduates, both biology majors and others, presents clearly written extensive discussion of viruses, bacteria, and the human immune system. Beautifully illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raven, Peter H., et al. Biology. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Outstanding introductory biology textbook for undergraduate biology majors. Clearly written and features beautiful photographs and other illustrations. Provides excellent presentations of microbiology and immunology for lay readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace, Robert A., Jack L. King, and Gerald P. Sanders. Biosphere: The Realm of Life. 2d ed. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1988. Excellent introductory biology textbook for undergraduates. Features clear writing, diagrams, and photographs. Chapter 40, “Immunity,” provides a useful introduction to the human body’s defense mechanisms against disease.

Founding of the International Sanitary Bureau

Ehrlich and Metchnikoff Conduct Pioneering Immunity Research

Tuberculosis Vaccine BCG Is Developed

Florey and Chain Develop Penicillin as an Antibiotic

Categories: History