Danish veterinarian credited with Brucella abortus discovery

Dr. Bernhard Bang also devised popular model for bovine TB eradication
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Updated Oct. 12, 2011

In the preface to "Bernhard Bang: Selected Works"—a sampling of the Danish veterinary bacteriologist's research published four years after his death in 1936—a colleague offered an explanation for Dr. Bang's drive and seemingly limitless energy: "His whole life-work showed emphatic evidence of the motto he had adopted: Make yourself as useful as you can."

Dr. Bang
Dr. Bernhard Lauritz Frederik Bang

Educated in both human and veterinary medicine, Dr. Bang conducted extensive investigations into zoonotic diseases. It was this work that led to his discovery in 1897 of Brucella abortus as the principal causative agent of brucellosis in cattle and undulant fever in humans. To this day, the bacterium is known as "Bang's bacillus."

Additionally, Dr. Bang is known for his research on smallpox vaccination, isolating the necrosing bacillus in swine, and devising a system for preventing the spread of bovine tuberculosis that became the model for many European states. He also served as veterinary adviser to the Danish government.

Born June 7, 1848, on the Danish island of Seeland, Bernhard Lauritz Frederik Bang would first pursue a medical degree at the University of Copenhagen before giving himself fully to veterinary medicine.

During his studies Dr. Bang developed a fondness for research, and he embraced the emerging disciplines of microbiology and pathological anatomy. He decided he could best satisfy his love for research by studying animal anatomy and animal disease, and so, after receiving a bachelor's in medicine in 1872, he enrolled at the Royal School of Veterinary Medicine, graduating in 1873.

Dr. Bang had hoped to join the faculty at the Veterinary College but was denied the opportunity, as there were no openings. He instead took a position as house officer in pathology at the Copenhagen City Hospital, where he was appointed assistant physician in 1877.

When the director of the Royal School of Veterinary Medicine died in 1879, Dr. Bang was offered the post of professor of surgery and obstetrics and director of the ambulatory clinic. In 1880, he submitted his dissertation, "Observations and studies on fatal embolism and thrombosis in the pulmonary arteries," earning a doctorate in medicine. That same year, Dr. Bang went on an educational journey to the veterinary colleges in Germany, Austria, and France.

Dr. Bang had found his home at the Royal School. "There he devoted the remainder of his professional years to research, teaching, and practice and was recognized as the outstanding scientist on the faculty, attracting students from many countries," according to an article on Dr. Bang's life in the April 28, 1968, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

During his tenure, Dr. Bang would become involved in almost every aspect of veterinary medicine as his teaching duties expanded to general pathology, special pathology, therapy, and pharmacodynamics. He was made chief of the clinic for domestic animals, and then of the clinic for larger animals, and director of the experimental laboratory in the department of bacteriology. He was one of the first advocates for using antiseptics in veterinary surgery.

Dr. Bang was a gifted research scientist as well. Previous studies of contagious abortion in cattle had failed to identify the causative agent. That was to change when Dr. Bang and a pupil recovered what would come to be known as B abortus, a gram-negative bacillus, from the uterus of a pregnant cow with preliminary signs of abortion.

Dr. Bang subsequently recovered the tuberculosis bacillus from the milk of infected dairy cows and was one of the first to demonstrate the value of heating milk to kill the bacteria.

Bovine TB was a serious challenge to livestock production throughout much of the developing world in the late 19th century. The TB bacillus could infect large numbers of cattle and was difficult to control. Writing about the role of veterinarians in bovine TB eradication programs in the United States, Mitchell V. Palmer and W. Ray Waters noted Dr. Bang's control model, which used isolation then slaughter, appealed to producers as it prevented the loss of valuable genetic resources.

As Palmer and Waters explain: "In Bang's model, farmers were encouraged to segregate their cattle into two herds: animals that reacted to tuberculin and those that showed no reaction to tuberculin and were thus considered healthy. Calves were to be removed at birth and milk from the dam pasteurized before use. Slaughter of animals from the subherd could only be done under supervision of a competent meat inspector."

In Dr. Bang's system, the healthy herd increased in size as the tuberculosis herd slowly diminished, they noted. The control model was adopted in many parts of Europe but was less popular in America, where the costs of maintaining a subherd were seen as excessive.

Dr. Bang was lauded at home and abroad for his many contributions to animal and public health. Among the many honorary degrees awarded to Dr. Bang from universities throughout Europe, perhaps none was more significant than the doctorate in veterinary medicine he received from the Veterinary College of Utrecht in 1921. Two years before his death in 1932 at the age of 83, Dr. Bang was made an honorary member of the International Veterinary Congress.

Legends in Veterinary Medicine

In honor of World Veterinary Year, JAVMA is highlighting key international veterinarians from the past 250 years.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Dr. Bernhard Bang as Dutch (a native of the Netherlands). He is Danish (a native of Denmark).