The Right Chemistry: An increasing interest in probiotics


Early proponents of yogurt and Mutaflor were on the right track. Since the 1990s, research into probiotics has exploded.

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Heinrich Hoffmann had contracted gonorrhea and sought help from Theodor Morell, who had become a fashionable physician in Berlin, treating the rich and famous with vitamins, herbs and various animal gland extracts. Apparently, Hoffmann was satisfied with whatever treatment he received because he recommended Morell to his boss, who happened to be Adolf Hitler. Hoffmann was the Fuhrer’s official photographer and a trusted member of his inner circle.

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Hitler suffered from chronic intestinal problems and was increasingly irritated by the lack of help from his physicians. He agreed to meet Morell, who treated him with Mutaflor, a preparation that contained live bacteria. The Nazi leader was so elated by its effects that he made Morell his personal physician, much to the dismay of many in his entourage. Hermann Göring, who founded the Gestapo, and Heinrich Himmler, the main architect of the Holocaust, dismissed Morell as a quack and an opportunist.

Indeed, Morell had a less than stellar history, having falsely claimed to have studied under Ilya Metchnikov, who was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for his work on immunity. Morell had concocted the connection with Metchnikov to enhance his own reputation. The Ukrainian scientist had garnered fame thanks to his discovery of a type of immune cell that has the ability to engulf and ingest harmful substances such as bacteria and dead or dying cells. These cells would be termed “phagocytes,” from the Greek “phagein,” meaning “to eat,” and “cyte” denoting “cell.”

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In this context, Metchnikov had studied microbes in the gut and theorized that increasing the population of harmless bacteria might curb the growth of disease-causing organisms. Since all bacteria in the gut compete for the same food supply, the harmful ones would be starved and end up being gobbled up by phagocytes. Metchnikov believed that lactic-acid producing bacteria, such as the ones found in sour milk, were the key to good health, and even attributed the supposed longevity of Bulgarian peasants to their yogurt consumption. He himself drank sour milk every day, thereby laying the foundation for the use of what today we call “probiotics,” from the Latin “for life.” By definition, these are “live microorganisms that when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”

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Professor Alfred Nissle was an infectious disease specialist who was familiar with the work of Metchnikov. In 1917, he managed to isolate a strain of Escherichia coli bacteria from the feces of a soldier who was resistant to an epidemic of diarrhea, likely caused by shigella bacteria. He surmised that this strain, which would be known as “E. coli Nissle 1917,” was a “probiotic” that had crowded out shigella. Nissle introduced this strain into practice as “Mutaflor,” claiming that it would treat intestinal diseases, which it actually did with varying degrees of efficacy. This is what Morell administered to Hitler, apparently with success.

Long before Mutaflor, people had been consuming probiotics through such fermented foods as sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kefir, kimchi and yogurt. These are produced through the controlled growth of microbes such as yeasts and bacteria and have historically been deemed to be healthy due to their content of live bacteria. In the 1800s, patients with all sorts of complaints flocked to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s “Sanitarium” in Battle Creek, Michigan. where they would be treated with “lactic ferment,” in other words, yogurt. Kellogg was an early disciple of Metchnikov and extolled the virtues of lactobacilli as a means of “driving out poison-forming germs.” He advocated the administration of yogurt both orally and by means of enemas, “thus planting the protective germs where they are most needed and may render most effective service.”

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Kellogg and Metchnikov, it seems, were on the right track. Since the 1990s, research into probiotics has exploded, with the composition of bacteria in the gut, the so-called “microbiota,” being linked with Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, colorectal cancer, obesity and inflammatory bowel disease such as colitis, which medical historians believe was the cause of Hitler’s gut problems. It is therefore conceivable that he could have been helped by Mutaflor. As a consequence, he came to rely on all the other medications that Morell suggested for his various other complaints that included headaches, constant colds and insomnia.

Morell kept meticulous records of his “Patient A.” These survived the war and have been thoroughly analyzed. Between 1941 and 1945, he treated Hitler with 29 different injections and 63 kinds of oral tablets that included codeine, cocaine, testosterone, sulfonamide, oxycodone, strychnine, belladonna, bile extracts, morphine and barbiturates. “Vitamultin” was Morell’s special concoction of vitamins produced in one of the highly profitable drug firms he owned. When Hitler was injected with this he claimed to feel refreshed and invigorated. Himmler, who was suspicious of Morell, secretly had one of his Vitamultin pills analyzed and learned it contained methamphetamine!

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Many of the drugs administered by Morell have psychoactive properties and possibly contributed to Hitler’s increasing paranoia, anxiety and perhaps even to some poor military decisions. One wonders how history would have been altered had Hitler had not had success with Mutaflor, a preparation still available today in Germany for treatment of ulcerative colitis, chronic constipation and diarrhea in newborns. It was the relief afforded by Mutaflor that led to the Nazi leader’s utter trust in Morell and the medications he meted out, many of which were questionable and untested. However, any suggestion that the nightmare Hitler inflicted on the world was somehow linked to drugs he was taking should be dismissed. Hitler was simply evil personified.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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