Clemens Peter Freiherr von Pirquet. 12 May 1874 – 28 February 1929. Austrian physician, bacteriologist and immunologist.


Life and Work:

1. Every preschooler in Russia knows the word “pirquet” – children think that it is a scratch on the wrist. Let us explain to babies and many adults that Pirquet is not a wound but a person. In 1906, the Austrian pediatrician coined the word “allergy” translating from the Greek “effect of the other.” In 1907, he proposed a method to diagnose tuberculosis – that very scratch.


2. Freiherr von Pirquet comes from the noble family whose roots stretch back to the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. His father was a prominent member of the Austrian parliament and the mother’s relatives were Hungarian bankers.


3. It took Clemens some time to choose medicine. Firstly, he decided to dedicate his life to theology and went from the Theresian Academy straight to the University of Innsbruck. Later, he studied philosophy at the University of Leuven but eventually, much to displeasure of his parents, he chose medicine. In 1900, the future scientist received a doctoral degree from the University of Graz.


4. Clemens von Pirquet became a children’s doctor in Berlin where he worked as an intern for the then renowned Otto Heubner who is revered as the founding father of pediatrics in Germany. Upon return to Vienna, von Pirquet started practicing at the Saint Anna Children’s Clinic, first in the Austrian capital.


5. Von Pirquet went beyond treatment of children. In 1903, he published his first research article “Theory of Infectious Diseases.” It is at the same time that the scientist embarked upon his teacher’s career – he started giving lectures on vaccination.


6. In 1906, von Pirquet described the so-called “serum disease” and this work captured attention of the scientific community. The scientist noticed that patients who had been vaccinated against diseases revealed serious reactions to the second vaccination jab – rash, labored breathing, and so on. It was called the “serum disease” back at the time and physicians did not understand the causes for the ailment.


7. Clemens von Pirquet started experimenting with vaccines and used himself as a laboratory guinea-pig. He made an important conclusion – the symptoms of the “serum disease” is nothing but the body’s hypersensitivity to serum components. This is the “effect of the other” or “allergy” in Greek. And this is how Clemens von Pirquet named the body’s reaction to the serum injection. Clemens von Pirquet coined the word along with Béla Schick of the University of Vienna, if truth be told.


8. Later, von Pirquet took interest in tuberculin – a combination of tuberculosis mycobacteria extracts. Robert Koch, the discoverer of the tubercule bacillus, decided that tuberculin could be used to cure tuberculosis but the medicine proved to be useless in treatment. Clemens von Pirquet studied Koch’s articles and found mentions of the “knobs” which swelled in the tuberculin injection spot. A series of experiments ended in success as the reactions of the healthy and TBC child patients were completely different.


9. The entire world decided to use Pirquet’s test. The author leaped to fame and he was invited to give pediatrics lectures at the Johns Hopkins University in the United States and asked to stay forever but two years later Clemens von Pirquet returned to Europe. After a short period of teaching in Breslau, the scientist went back to Vienna and took over a chair of pediatrics at the University of Vienna Clinic where he worked until his death.


10. The pediatrician Clemens von Pirquet developed a system of clinical nutrition for child patients, an artificial feeding method for the newborn. The specialists know the Pirquet Index or the index of the child body build proportion.


11. Among von Pirquet’s other scientific contributions is the idea of identifying teeth with a double-digit system. This idea was picked up and gave the basis for an odontogram used currently all over the world.


12. In the 1920s, professor von Pirquet was the President of the Austrian Healthcare Society. After World War I, Austria which rose from the debris of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian Empire was plagued by poverty. The U.S. charitable organizations provided relief to the Austrian children and the scientist oversaw their work. Rumor has it that von Pirquet was so popular that he was considered as the most likely candidate for the Austrian presidency.


13. Clemens von Pirquet met his future wife Maria Christine van Husen during his internship in Berlin. The scientist’s family was hostile towards her. It was then learned that the wife suffered from a mental illness. This marriage brought the professor to a disaster. On 28 February 1929, Clemens von Pirquet and his wife committed suicide with potassium cyanide. There were conspiracy rumors that the professor had been killed by his political enemies.


14. Pirquet’s major scientific achievements were celebrated in verses. In the “History of the 20th Century,” in a section dedicated to the year 1906, the great Joseph Brodsky wrote:

“The man of the year is Herr von Pirquet.

He stings like honey-bee.

The sting screams like Prince Hamlet’s sick parakeet:

TB or not TB.

“What I call allergy,

you call rash.

I’ll give you an analogy:

each time you blush,

it shows you’re too susceptible

to something lurid

obscene and antiseptical

to hope to cure it.

This, roughly, is the principle

that guides my needle.

To prove you are invincible

it hurts a little;

it plucks from your pale cheeks

the blooming roses

and checks their petals

for tuberculosis!”


15. Clemens von Pirquet was five times nominated for the Nobel Prize but to no avail.