Emil Theodor Kocher Biography


Birthday: August 25, 1841 (Virgo)

Born In: Bern, Switzerland

Theodor Kocher was a Swiss physician best known as a Nobel Prize winner for his work in Physiology, pathology and surgery. Theodor was interested in the field of medicine since his early years. Following his high school graduation, he enrolled at the University of Bern and completed his studies in 1865. After travelling across Europe, he returned to Bern and took a top position in the faculty of the University of Bern, where he worked almost all his life. He was known for his work on aseptic surgery and thyroid treatments. He revolutionized thyroid treatments with his slow and precise methods. He reduced the loss of blood and his patients had very less mortality rates while going through thyroid surgery. He also established that the thyroid gland should not be removed completely as it could lead to mental and physical issues in patients. The modern thyroid treatments using hormone replacement therapy owed greatly to the research conducted by Theodor. He was awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He also wrote several books and medical journals and remains one of the most influential medical practitioners and surgeons of all time.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 75


Spouse/Ex-: Marie Witschi-Courant

father: Jakob Alexander Kocher

mother: Maria Kocher

Born Country: Switzerland

Swiss Men Male Physicians

Died on: July 27, 1917

place of death: Bern, Switzerland

City: Bern, Switzerland

Notable Alumni: University Of Bern

More Facts

education: University of Bern

awards: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1909)

Childhood & Early Life

Theodor Kocher was born Emil Theodor Kocher, on August 25, 1841, in Bern, Switzerland. He was born to Jakob Alexander and Maria Kocher and was baptized a few weeks later. His father worked as an engineer while his mother was a housewife. He was born into a financially well-off family.

Theodor moved to Burgdorf in 1845 with his family, where he began his schooling. However, the family moved back to Bern where Theodor finally completed his middle and higher education. Theodor was good in academics and excelled in almost all subjects bud had a great interest in art and classical philology. However, he eventually became interested in becoming a doctor.

In 1858, he enrolled at the University of Bern and earned his doctorate degree in 1865. He studied under doctors, Anton Biermer and Hermann Askan Demme, who were two of the most well-known doctors in the country

Following his graduation, he travelled to London, Paris and Berlin, to further his knowledge in the field of medicine and worked with some great surgeons. He began his travel across Europe in the mid-1860s and his first stop was Berlin, where he met and worked under  Bernhard von Langenbeck. He later applied for a position as his assistant but there were no vacancies for the position.

He moved to London in 1867 and met surgeons such as Jonathan Hutchinson. He later worked for Henry Thompson and John Erichsen. He eventually moved to Paris and also interacted and worked with top surgeons there, learning different techniques. He also became fluent in English during these trips, which further helped him in his career to work and collaborate with English speaking physicians and surgeons.

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Upon his return to Bern, he faced difficulties getting a job at the faculty of the University of Bern, which he desperately wanted. However, at that time it was compulsory for the swiss universities to appoint German doctors to the top university positions. Local press and doctors wrote petitions in favour of Theodor. Thus, he was eventually appointed as the Ordinary Professor of Surgery and Director of the University Surgical Clinic.

He was just 30 years old when he was given a professorship at the University of Bern. His tenure at the university was remarkable as he wrote about 249 medical papers and books, and trained a vast number of young doctors. He also worked as a doctor and treated thousands of patients during his career span of 45 years at the University.

Among all his great works as a physician, his contribution to the Aseptic Surgery gained a lot of attention. Joseph Lister, the pioneer of the antiseptic method in wound management, was in correspondence with Theodor. However, it is not clear whether they ever met in person or not. When the technique had just been introduced, Theodor presented it to his peers in Switzerland. He was a great supporter of the method and hospital reports suggested that he ordered strict adherence to the method. He also proved that the method saved lives. He later published several papers and journals on the surgery and aseptic method.

Kocher also had a great interest in the fields of neurology and neurosurgery. His research was mostly directed toward neurosurgery, concussions and intracranial pressure. In addition, he conducted heavy research on the surgical way of treating epilepsy and cranial and spinal trauma. He concluded that brain tumor was found in the majority of epilepsy patients and they can be treated after the tumor removal through surgery.

He further stated that increased ICP caused epilepsy in many patients and that cerebrospinal fluid leakage can be a way to treat epilepsy. In 1886, a famous Japanese doctor Hayazo Ito came to Switzerland and worked in Theodor’s lab for weeks. Upon his return to Japan, he treated thousands of epilepsy patients with surgery.

Theodor later wrote a surgery textbook titled Chirurgische Operationslehre, in which he wrote about 161 of over 1000 pages to surgery of the nervous system.

Theodor’s work towards thyroid surgery remains his most widely acknowledged contribution to the field of surgery. Surgically removing the thyroid gland was known to be one of the riskiest procedures in surgery back in the 19th century. The mortality level was as high as 75 percent in the 1870s. Hence, the surgery was considered so risky that it was banned in many countries.

During his research, Theodor discovered that completely removing the thyroid gland was dangerous as it led to cretinism, which was a condition caused by the lack of thyroid hormones. Although Theodor followed a slow and precise method of the operation, he was concerned. He contacted several thyroidectomy patients and discovered that many of them had developed mental and physical disorders. It was in spite of his slow and precise method which had low mortality than any other technique.

In 1883, he finally publicized his finding that the complete removal of the thyroid gland could lead to troubles. At that time, the thyroid gland used to be removed completely as its function in the human body was not known. After his famous lecture at the German Society of Surgery was widely publicized, it also attracted a lot of critiques. Many surgeons disagreed with his findings.

However, over time, Theodor’s studies in the field became instrumental in doctors finally understanding the function and workings of the thyroid gland. These findings also set the stage for the current treatment method for thyroid issues through thyroid hormone replacement.

For his contributions to medical science, Theodor was awarded a 1909 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He later used the Nobel Prize money to establish a Kocher Institute, in Bern.

Aside from his famous contributions, he also worked towards hemostasis, surgical infectious diseases, acute osteomyelitis, the theory of strangulated hernia, and abdominal surgeries. Several procedures used in surgeries are named after him, such as the Kocher maneuver, and Kocher incision. He is also known for the invention of Kocher’s Surgical Clamp which is used to prevent blood loss during surgeries.

He is also credited with writing the Text-Book of Operative Surgery, which has been translated into many languages.

In 1878 and 1903, he was named the rector of the University of Bern. In addition, he was also the president of the Bernese and Swiss Physicians Association and named a co-founder of the Swiss society for surgery. He also served as the society’s president.

Personal Life & Death

Theodor Kocher married Marie Witchi in 1851. The couple had three sons together. His eldest son Albert became an Assistant Professor of Surgery.

Theodor passed away on July 27, 1917. He had just returned from surgery and fell unconscious while working on his papers. He died on the spot at the age of 75. 

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