Long Known, Long Ignored: A Brief History of Cytomegalovirus Research

  • Gabriele Halwachs-BaumannEmail author


In 1881, the year when president James Garfield was shot, and thereafter Chester A. Arthur was inaugurated as the president of the United States of America, in Göttingen, Germany, Professor Ribbert had to investigate the body of a syphilitic stillborn. At that time Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire. Women of the society had to wear stays and skirts covering their ankles, and it was indecorous for a gynaecologist to see the undraped alvus of a women. The examination of the small body bothered Professor Ribbert. In the kidney he found unusual large cells he could not classify [1]. More than 20 years later, in 1904, the two physicians Jesionek and Kiolemenoglou from the royal dermatological hospital in Munich published a case study about ‘Findings of protozoan like structures in the organs of an inherited infected luetic fetus’. They wrote that they had investigated almost all organs of the fetus, and in five of them, they found besides changes due to the infection with Treponema pallidum the causative organism for syphilis, idiosyncratic cellular formations, whose interpretation made great difficulties. The organs, which showed these peculiar changes, were the two kidneys, the two lungs and the liver, where clusters of 10–40 ‘elements’ were observed. These ‘elements’ were 20 to 30 μm in diameter, the nuclei were large and eccentrically placed and each contained a ‘central nuclear body’ surrounded by two zones, a darker inner zone and a clear outer zone, which could be clearly differentiated. This accurate depiction of histological changes, taking more than two pages, is one of the most remarkable examples of exact observations in natural science [2]. Although the authors could not interpret their findings correctly, they described the ‘owl eye cells’, typical changes in cytomegalovirus infection, which were used as a diagnostic tool until recently.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Laboratory MedicineRegional Hospital SteyrSteyrAustria

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