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Wagner-Jauregg began his medical studies at the University of Vienna in 1874. His career was rooted in the new fields of microscopy and experimental biology. He met and became a lifelong friend of Sigmund Freud. For a short time after leaving the institute he worked in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Vienna. He accepted a job in the psychiatric clinic. Even though he had no training in psychiatry or neurology he became greatly interested in the fields.
From 1889 to 1893 he was professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Graz. Here he became interested in the relation between cretinism and goitre. He proposed that the disease was due to thyroid deficiency and could be treated by the addition of small amounts of iodide to salt. In 1923 the Austrian government implemented the sale of iodised salt.
In 1883, during residency at the Vienna asylum, Wagner-Jauregg noted that a female patient who had contracted erysipelas experienced a remission of her psychoses. This aroused his interest. In 1890 Robert Koch developed tuberculin, which was considered to be a vaccine supposedly effective against tuberculosis. Wagner-Jauregg injected tuberculin into several patients whose psychotic symptoms were caused by neurosyphilis. He thought that if he gave them tuberculous fever, the fever would arrest the progress of neurosyphilis, on the grounds that the spirochaetes were heat sensitive. By 1909 he was regularly obtaining long term remission of neurosyphilis through the use of tuberculin. He abandoned the experiments because tuberculin was considered to be too toxic. Wagner-Jauregg then returned to the possibility of giving patients a fever with malaria, which unlike other infections had the advantage of being controlled with quinine.
In 1917 he proposed a new treatment for general paresis of the insane, which was then a relatively common disorder. In that year he inoculated nine patients with general paresis of the insane with tertian malaria and later reported that in six of these extensive remissions followed. For this work he received the Nobel prize for medicine or physiology in 1927. His ideas of non-specific therapies to increase the body's defences were in conflict with the “magic bullet” concept advanced by Paul Ehrlich.
Wagner-Jauregg was honoured philatelically by Austria in 1957, the 100th year of his birth (Stanley Gibbons 1289, Scott 615).
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