Max Joseph Von Pettenkofer

Max Joseph Pettenkofer, ennobled in 1883 as Max Joseph von Pettenkofer (3 December 1818 – 10 February 1901), Bavarian chemist and hygienist, was born in Lichtenheim, near Neuburg an der Donau, now part of Weichering. He was a nephew of Franz Xaver (1783–1850), who from 1823 was surgeon and apothecary to the Bavarian court and was the author of some chemical investigations on the vegetable alkaloids. He studied pharmacy and medicine at Munich, where he graduated M.D. in 1843, and after working under Liebig at Gießen was appointed chemist to the Munich mint in 1845. Two years later he was chosen extraordinary professor of chemistry in the medical faculty, in 1853 he was made a full professor, and in 1865 he became also professor of hygiene.

In his earlier years he devoted himself to chemistry, both theoretical and applied, publishing papers on the preparation of gold and platinum, numerical relations between the atomic weights of analogous elements, the formation of aventurine glass, the manufacture of illuminating gas from wood, the preservation of oil-paintings, among other things. The reaction known by his name for the detection of bile acids was published in 1844. In his widely used method for the quantitative determination of carbonic acid the gaseous mixture is shaken up with baryta or limewater of known strength and the change in alkalinity ascertained by means of oxalic acid. It was who provided the experimental proof that the mysterious haematinum of ancient times was in fact a copper-colored glass.

But his name is most familiar in connection with his work in practical hygiene, as an apostle of good water, fresh air and proper sewage disposal. His attention was drawn to this subject by the unhealthy condition in Munich in the 19th century. was also a proponent of the "ground water theory" regarding the spread of epidemic Asiatic cholera. He believed that the fermentation of organic matter in the subsoil released the cholera germ into the air which then infected the most susceptible (those with poor diet, constitution, etc.). was not, however, a contagionist because he adhered to the belief that cholera spread via the atmosphere rather than directly from person to person. This is essentially an updated theory of miasmatism. Based on a self-test with cholera bacteria obtained from Robert Koch (conducted in the presence of several witnesses on 7 October 1892) it appeared that the bacteria did not have effect.

Pettenkofer gave vigorous expression to his views on hygiene and disease in numerous books and papers; he was an editor of the Zeitschrift für Biologie (together with Carl von Voit) from 1865 to 1882, and of the Archiv des Hygiene from 1883 to 1894. In 1883 he was awarded a hereditary title of nobility.

In 1894 he retired from active work, and on 10 February 1901 he shot himself in a fit of depression. He died at his home in the Residenz in Munich. He is buried in the Alter Südfriedhof in Munich.

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    Gray, dear friend, is all theory,
    But green the golden tree of life.
    —Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749–1832)