The history of the magic bullet

It will, in short, become possible to introduce into the economy a molecular mechanism which, like a very cunningly contrived torpedo, shall find its way to some particular group of living elements, and cause an explosion among them, leaving the rest untouched.

Thomas Huxley (1881) ‘The connection of the biological sciences with medicine’ Science 24: 346.

Paul Ehrlich, 1915 (Wellcome Trust Photographic Library)

On a particularly cool summer’s day in June 1907, Professor Paul Ehrlich , a brilliant German scientist and physician stood before his peers and delivered his third Harben lecture to the Royal Institute of Public Health, London. In it, he outlined his theory on magic bullets – a drug that could to pin point a bacteria or virus, destroy it, leaving everything else untouched.

As a medical student, Ehrlich developed his interest in ‘magic bullets’. On finding that the absorption of Lead varied between different organs within the human body, Ehrlich grew fascinated with the selective distribution of substances in the different organs and tissues. It was this fascination that would eventually draw him into his hunt for a magic bullet. Although the concept (known in German as Zauberkugel) had appeared earlier in his writings, this is the first known use of the term in the English language.

Das Gespensterbuch

Das Gespensterbuch

Ehrlich drew his inspiration for this, now popularised term used to describe wished for drugs and technological solutions, from the German folktale Der Freischütz (the Devil’s Bullet) which was also the inspiration of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera of the same name. While the origin of Der Freischütz, like most folktales is unknown, it was published between 1811 and 1815 in a five-volume collection of ghost stories Das Gespensterbuch (Book of Ghosts) edited by German playwrights – Johann Apel and Frederich Laun . The first volume which was later translated into French ‘ Fantasmagoriana, is believed to have been the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Paradoxically,  however, Der Freischütz warns that magic bullets have unintended consequences. While Shelley’s allegory warns of man’s quest to conquer nature.

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