(To all in love of Sanitation practices; Science and of course a good Story)

Memorable Max von Pettenkofer

The life of Max v Pettenkofer is straight out of a Jeffrey Archer novel. The only catch being that it is a life lived in real. A great life in service of humankind. A Messiah spreading the words of hygiene, safe water and sewage disposal. All elements that Covid-19 reminds us.

But this is not about his teachings and preaching. It is about the colorful life of a Chemist from Bavaria (Germany) who could have become many things in life but ended up being what he was. A legend in his own circle of admirers. A life that points to the non-believer there is a word in the dictionary beginning with D. Destiny. Max had eight siblings. Father, a small-time farmer. But as happens in novels, he had a rich uncle. Mr, Uncle for no special reason known (except that he had no child of his own) fell prey to the “D” word and decided to adopt Max. There was a pharmacy shop that Mr Uncle owned. And he had planned to pass on the succession to Max.

But German they were. Mr. Uncle & Mr. Nephew Max. Each with their own temper. And muscle. And a fancy to punch as and when asked for. As happened during a public display. Mr. Uncle threw a punch. Mr. Nephew received it on his ears. And muttering “to hell with your shop”, Max left his Uncle and joined a theatrical company. Why? Ask “D”.s

But Max was a failure in theatre. So, he was in a soup. He had left his uncle in a huff. But then at such times “D” calls for help. And therein comes “C” with an arrow. Cupid.

Mr. Uncle’s daughter aptly named Helen. Came. Pleaded. Begged. Max to return home. Mr. Uncle accepted. Max wanted to study in University. Complete his education. But Mr. Uncle was wise. He insisted Max study medicine. For Medicine was a sure cut to livelihood.

Nothing of consequence, but good for us to know lest I forget to mention in the story of the miraculous life later, C played her role. In later life, Max and Helen were united by marriage.

Max was good in academics. A few boring things happened in his life. He passed his exams. And joined Liebig’s Laboratory at Giessen, Germany. It was a prize appointment that just did not come. He had to wait months before he got there. In the period of joining he kept on with his academics and did boring things like devising the test for bile acids. The test bears his name.

After some time, he moved on from Liebig’s laboratory. Moved from one university to another. Was offered academic posts. D kept on playing its role. And he kept on refusing the positions offered to him. For he was different. However, he did rise in his position and kept on getting recognized.

And ultimately got the prestigious honour in administration. Chief of the Court Pharmacy and Apothecary to the Court. 1850.

Max would have died a man remembered for a few years by his friends and admirers. But Max is remembered. For a reason extremely odd. And to some extent audaciously funny.

In the 1850s, there was an outbreak of Cholera and Typhoid in Munich. Max was sceptical of John Snow’s idea of infected water as cause of disease. He thought this was a grand opportunity to test Snow’s theory with an intent to prove Dr Snow wrong. He conducted his investigation. And magically proved that he was right. It was all about the moisture content in the soil and to hell with germs and infection.

This aside Max worked hard in improving the sanitary systems of the city of Munich. And the overall impact on health of its citizens was high.

But then came the discovery of Robert Koch. In 1884. Cholera is caused by a germ. Robert Kock demonstrated and proved. A bacillus. Vibrio cholerae. This was now too much for Max. It irritated him that a wrong theory of germs continued to be pursued by scientists. He had to disprove these theories. Once and for all. Max asked Robert for a vial of water filled with Vibrio cholerae. He would drink the whole vial’s water. And prove Vibrio cholerae is a bogus theory. He did. And with him two of his students drank the infected water too. Blindly believing their Master Max.

Miracle. Miracle. Miracle.

Nothing happened to Max. He was fine. He had the last laugh. Vibrio cholerae germ theory does not work. But magic is magic. Miracles are miracles. Science does have the last laugh always. The two students fell seriously ill with bouts of cholera. Scientific thinking makes us believe that Max might have had cholera in his early life. He was probably immune to the germ Vibrio.

But with this episode and magical last laugh Max became famous in the annals of history.

Good stories always have an ending. That leaves its readers remembering the story for life.

There is a theory as to why Max drank the water from the vial full of Bacillus. It was not because he challenged Robert Koch. Which he did in his outward gesture. But perhaps internally he did believe Koch. And that is why he drank the whole water from the vial. To commit suicide.

Max had lost his wife and three children. He wanted to commit suicide. The vial of bacillus laden water was his poison. And his act of drinking it. His death-wish.

In 1901, Max Pettenkofer suffered a sore throat infection. He could not sleep for nights. With having lost his family and this illness he suffered from, Max had had enough of his illustrious life. He took his own life.

Max Pettenkofer wrote more than 200 publications in life and is considered to be one of the revolutionaries in the field of public health. What we call WSH today. Water. Sanitation. Hygiene. He was one of the pioneers in thinking and executing.

A memorable life. A gift of Science. Max Pettenkofer.

(Source: With resources and publications from The Lancet; NEJM; and Max’s publications)

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