The Magic Bullet

We’ve all heard the term Magic Bullet used to refer to a miraculous answer to a problem. Ever wonder where the term came from? The answer is that it came from a man by the name of Paul Ehrlich.

Paul was born in 1854 in what is now Poland. As a teenager, he became fascinated with staining microscopic substances so he could study them better. This fascination led him to study medicine and pursue a medical research career.

Paul developed a theory that one could kill microbes, which caused diseases in humans, without doing harm to the body. He envisioned that a substance could be injected into the body to kill the microbe much like a gun could be aimed to hit a specific object. He coined the term magic bullet to describe the substance.

He tested the use of a dye made from arsenic to see whether it would kill a microbe without harming the body. Since arsenic was a deadly poison, his research was widely panned. Arsenic happened to have a chemical structure that made it more likely to bind to microbes. His lab was connected to a dye factory where Paul could obtain a number of compounds to test against microbes.

Compound 606 was found to be effective in killing the microbe that caused syphilis and became the magic bullet that Paul had theorized. While arsenic is a poison, it was formulated in a way to keep patients from being harmed. The only other treatment for syphilis at the time was four years of mercury injections.

Paul’s finding of a magic bullet became the foundation of pharmacy research leading to chemotherapy (a term he also coined) and immunization strategies. For all of his achievements, Paul was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Beginnings often come with risks. Paul’s breakthrough magic bullet was discovered in the early 1900s when there was less concern for the possible bad results from tests conducted on human subjects. Over the years risks were taken, which had disastrous results often on vulnerable populations used in the study. In Paul’s case, the magic bullet was in fact as described.

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“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but we’re often looking for a magic bullet and the bright shining object. Sometimes we need to just have the basics.” –Thomas Frieden (Infectious disease and public health physician)

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