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Victor Babeș: Fierce Fighter against Epidemics

Updated: May 27, 2020

As the pandemic rages on, it is time we remembered some great heroes of the medical front, whose extraordinary discoveries, coming in times of distress like the one we’re living now, helped save innumerable lives. And we’ll start with the brilliant pathologist Victor Babeș, the proponent of some crucial methods of medical investigation and treatment that helped eradicate epidemics and form the basis of today’s medical practice around the world.

Author of ground-breaking research and methodological innovations, working in the forefront of infectious diseases, Victor Babeș was and remains one of the great names of medical profession. Born in Vienna on July 4, 1854, he was the scion of a prominent family from the rich, multicultural province of Banat. The second son of a leader of the Romanian national movement in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the future medical innovator contemplated a musical career and even began studying music at the Budapest Conservatory. Shocked by the premature death of his sister Alma due to abdominal tuberculosis he changed his mind and decided that, from then on, he would dedicate his life to fighting life-threatening medical conditions. He abruptly abandoned his musical education to enroll in the Medical Faculty of the University of Vienna and later continued his training in Budapest where he also took his PhD.

Babeș began his scientific career in the Hungarian capital but, fascinated by the work of Louis Pasteur, he went to work with him in Paris for a brief time. Later he joined André Victor Cornil with whom he co-authored the first ever treatise of bacteriology, Les bactéries et leur rôle dans l’anatomie et l’histologie pathologiques des maladies infectieuses. Recognized as a young rising star of European medicine, Babeș was asked by the Romanian government to set up the Institute of Pathology and Bacteriology in Bucharest, the first establishment of its kind in Romania. He was also appointed Professor of Pathology and Bacteriology at the Bucharest Faculty of Medicine.

Combining clinical observation with laboratory experiments, Babeș went on to make a string of breakthroughs that would forever change the medical practice. He discovered the immune serum which could inactivate microbes, formulated the principle of passive immunization, and invented an original method of rabies immunization widely known as The Romanian Method for Rabies Treatment.

Babeș tackled the infectious process with an original approach, which fused bacteriology and pathological anatomy. Expanding on Pasteur’s findings, he came up with the concept of “vital competition” between bacterial species and devised the antibiogram as testing method for the first time in the world. His method was adopted by German microbiologist Julius Petri, a disciple of Robert Koch and inventor of the “Petri dish”, and Swiss scientist Karl Garse, who applied it in his research on bacterial antagonism. Today, the antibiogram is a commonly used method in all microbiology laboratories.

In 1892, Babeș authored, in collaboration with fellow doctor and medical researcher Gheorghe Marinescu, an Atlas on the Pathological Histology of the Nervous System. In 1900, he founded the Bucharest Anatomical Society in order to boost anatomical and clinical studies in Romania. As a director of the Institute of Pathology and Bacteriology (today named in his honor), he suggested a series of realistic solutions for the organization of a national medical system and the functioning of the Romanian Ministry of Health.

Babeș was equally concerned with preventive medicine, supervising the development of water supply systems in towns and cities, organizing the fight against epidemics a.s.o. In 1913, he was involved in the cholera eradication campaigns in Bulgaria, for which he developed a cholera vaccine. He studied the causes of epidemic outbreaks (pellagra, tuberculosis), addressing the social roots of the diseases and reconfirming his objective views on causality in the natural world which he already displayed in works such as Considerations on the Relationship Between Natural Sciences and Philosophy (1879) and Faith and Science (1924).

In 1919, Victor Babeș was also appointed Professor at the University of Cluj, which had been recently founded. In appreciation of his extraordinary achievements, the university now bears a hyphenated name, pairing his with János Bolyai’s, the great Transylvania-born Hungarian mathematician. He died in 1924.

Reference book: Avram, Sorin, Bădescu, Emanuel, Român, Cristian, and Vişinescu, Mihai (coord.), Ionescu, Florin (consultant), 100 Romanian Innovators, foreword by Basarab Nicolescu, translated by Emilia Bratu, Bucharest, Romanian Cultural Institute Press, 2017

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