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The discovery of monkey pox – by Preben von Magnus

The virus infection monkey pox (abe-kopper in Danish), which has appeared in several, European countries during the last weeks, was first identified, described and named in 1958 by the Danish medical doctor Preben von Magnus (1912-1973). Preben von Magnus worked as a researcher at ’Statens seruminstitut’ in Copenhagen. At that time, cynomolgus monkeys (a type of macaques) were used as laboratory animals and Preben and his colleagues observed that some of the imported monkeys fell sick with something resembling smallpox (kopper).

In the same period, due to the wish to eradicate smallpox from the world, there was fear that smallpox could have natural reservoirs, for instance in non-human primates. So, the Danish researchers isolated virus from the ’pustules’ on the sick animals and carefully analysed it. First they cultivated it on chick embryo membranes and cellular cultures – where after they performed careful observations by electron microscopy. By this, they could conclude that the virus was not smallpox, but instead a new type of pox virus that they named monkey pox.

Preben von Magnus was a successful virologist who also made significant, scientific contributions within other virus types (e.g. influenza and polio virus) and within vaccinology.  He and his wife, Herdis von Magnus, who also was a successful researcher at Statens Seruminstitute, led the Danish polio vaccination program in that they developed and produced a Danish variant of the polio vaccine that was originally developed by the American researcher Jonas Salk. Preben also served on the famous, Danish hospital ship named Jutlandia, in Korea during the Korean war. In 1959, he was appointed as director of Statens Seruminstitute.



”A pox-like disease in cynomolgus monkeys”, Acta Pathol. Microbiol. Immunol. Scand., 1959, 46, 156-176.

”Smallpox and Monkey pox in non-human primates”, 1968

”Preben von Magnus”, Speech by Ole Maaleøe at the Royal Danish Society of Sciences and Letters, Feb. 22, 1974.

”The natural history of smallpox”, New Scientist, 1978

”Bekæmpelse af infektionssygdomme – Statens Seruminstitut 1902-2002”, Klaus Jensen.

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