Ilya Ilyich Metschnikow

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Ilya Ilyich Metschnikow

Élie Metchnikoff ( Russian Илья Ильич Мечников , scientific transliteration Il'ja Il'ič Mečnikov ), also Elias Metschnikoff or Elias Mechnikov , French form: Elie Metchnikoff (May 3 . Jul / 15. May  1845 greg. In Iwanowka at Kupyansk , Kharkov Governorate , Russian Empire ; † 2 July . jul / 15. July  1916 greg. in Paris , France ), was a Russian zoologist , bacteriologist and immunologist .

Its botanical and mycological Author abbreviation (he described also pathogenic fungi) is " Metschn. ". In 1883 he discovered the immune defense mechanisms against bacteria through the white blood cells ( phagocytosis ) and researched the cure and fight against cholera . In 1908 he and Paul Ehrlich received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in the field of immunity .


Metschnikow's scientific achievements are diverse:

  • With the discovery of the cellular immune defense, he is a founder of modern immunology,
  • he carried out medical research into aging in order to prevent aging, and coined the term "gerontology",
  • he invented and propagated the probiotic diet ( probiotic ),
  • he tried to find a cure for syphilis through experiments on chimpanzees,
  • he researched the embryology of invertebrates to elucidate their evolutionary relationships,
  • and with his popular philosophical writings, which have been translated into most of the world's languages, he propagated a scientistic, optimistic worldview "liberated" from religion and metaphysics, in which the natural sciences should function as the "future religion".

1845–1867: origin, youth, studies

The nobleman Metschnikow was born on the Panasowka manor (near Ivanovka), where he grew up, and was the son of a retired guard officer from St. Petersburg and the daughter of a writer. The paternal ancestors immigrated from Moldova to Russia at the beginning of the 18th century , Mechnikov's name (meč: Russian for “sword”) is a loan translation from Romanian “spadă”, derived from the Byzantine-GreekSpatha ”. His maternal grandfather was the writer Lev Nikolajewitsch Newachowitsch (Jechuda Lejb Ben Noach, 1776–1831) from Podolia , one of the first Jewish enlighteners ( Haskala ) in Russia. Metschnikow was decidedly areligious, but attributed scientific interest and talent to his Jewish roots. His older brother was the geographer Lev Ilyich Metschnikow (1838-1888), his other brother Ivan was the literary model for the main character in The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy .

Metschnikow attended grammar school in Kharkov . His career as a scientist began with a mishap: in 1862 he showed up a month early to study zoology in Würzburg - and left, discouraged, before the semester had even started. Instead, he enrolled at Kharkov University in 1862 , where he graduated as a zoologist and received his doctorate two years later . Then he tried a second time in Germany. He researched the marine fauna on Heligoland, studied in Gießen with Rudolf Leuckart from 1864 to 1865 , then in Göttingen (including with Jakob Henle , who was already doing immunological experiments with thorns) and in Munich, and among other things, he dealt with the sexual and asexual reproduction of the frog roundworm Ascaris nigrovenosa or with the intracellular digestion of the land planarie Geodesmus bilineatus . In Munich he met Carl Theodor von Siebold .

The German influences became very important for Metschnikow in this phase: In Germany Metschnikow came into contact with Darwinism and scientific materialism, two currents that should shape his thinking, here he learned the writings of Fritz Müller ( For Darwin . 1864), Charles Darwin (in German!) And Carl Vogt know. Metschnikow spoke German fluently, and some of his (early) scientific publications are written in German.

A grant from his home country enabled him to work at the Marine Biological Institute in Naples , where he and a Russian colleague did research on sponges.

1867–1882: Scientific work and career

In 1867 Metschnikow received a teaching position at the University of Odessa , where he only spent a short time: Saint Petersburg offered him a professorship in zoology, and Metschnikow accepted the call, albeit only to return to Naples shortly afterwards disappointed. On his return to St. Petersburg he fell ill. Lyudmila Wasiljewna Feodorowitsch (died 1873), the daughter of a friend, looked after him, and after his recovery they both became engaged. The wedding in 1869, to which the bride with lung disease had to be carried, was overshadowed by Lyudmila's tuberculosis and her short marriage was shaped by the search for a cure.

Mechnikov commuted between Italy and Russia: in La Spezia he examined the embryology of starfish , but kept coming back to Odessa. Hope for improvement led the couple to Madeira: Lyudmila died here on April 20, 1873, Metschnikow attempted suicide, which failed because the dose of morphine was too low .

Ilja Metschnikow, photo by Nadar

After his recovery, Metschnikow devoted himself again to research: in 1875 he worked again at the University of Odessa, where he also married the 17-year-old Olga Nikolajewna Belokopitowa (1858–1944). The marriage remained childless. A dispute with colleagues, the political situation and Olga's severe typhoid fever caused him to attempt a second suicide in 1880. Metschnikow intentionally infected himself with the blood of someone suffering from relapsing fever (the pathogen Borrelia was later to be named after one of his students). He survived after a serious illness.

1882–1916: years in Italy and France

After the political climate in Russia had become harsher with the murder of Tsar Alexander II by the terrorist organization Narodnaja Wolja , Metschnikow conducted research in Messina ( Sicily ) from 1882 . His decision to go to the West was made easier by the increasingly aggressive anti-Semitism in Russia and the pogroms of the 1880s. In Messina he began his research on phagocytes . In the intestinal tissue of sea ​​anemones , he discovered cells that absorbed color particles like an amoeba (he is said to have said that "death sits in the intestine"). He suspected that similar processes would also have to be involved in the fight against pathogens. In fact, pus formed around the needles of a Christmas tree, which he pricked into starfish larvae in the winter of 1882/83. A “struggle for existence” could also be made visible on a cellular level. Metschnikow developed the term “ macrophages ” for those cells that break down foreign bodies that have penetrated into the system and uses “microphages” to describe those cells that are known today as neutrophils . He is the first to describe the importance of these cells for immune defense .

In the mid-1880s, Metschnikow worked at the newly founded Bacteriological Institute in Odessa, but emigrated to France in 1888 because of the failure of mass vaccinations for sheep, but also because of intrigues. In 1887 he had met Louis Pasteur in Paris and asked for a place in the laboratory in his newly established research institute. He worked 1888–1904 as “Chef de Service”, 1904–1916 as Vice Director (“Sous-directeur scientifique”) of the institute. His second wife, Olga Belokopitowa, who studied science, supported him as an assistant in his work. From 1898 the Metschnikows lived in the Paris suburb of Sèvres. In 1898 Metschnikow was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . From 1904 he was a member of the Académie des Sciences in Paris. In 1910 he became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh .

Appreciations, late years, death

In his later years Metschnikow dealt with the medicine of aging and the possibilities of extending life, resulting from bacteria-enriched food (probiotics), with infectious diseases, especially syphilis, and with popular science, life reformatory writings.

In 1906 Metschnikow was honored with the Copley Medal of the Royal Society, in 1908 for the discovery of phagocytosis together with Paul Ehrlich with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine , after he, together with Alexander Onufrijewitsch Kowalewski , already in 1867 with Baer named after Karl Ernst von Baer -Prize for service to developmental biology.

Metschnikow saw inflammation processes caused by infections as the cause of the aging process (which was not biologically necessary for him). His research on foods enriched with bacteria ( probiotics ) served the goal of delaying aging and thus death. Lactic acid- producing bacteria, such as those found in sour milk and yoghurt , but especially in kefir , should displace harmful bacteria and thus extend life. Metschnikow also dealt with numerous infectious diseases, including syphilis , which he was able to artificially transfer to great apes together with Émile Roux in 1903 - for the first time in medical history . He also developed an anti-luetic , but not very successful, mercury ointment.

Ilya Ilyich Metschnikow and the Japanese pathologist Dr.  Salembeni.  1910, studies of the plague in the Kalmyk steppe.
Ilya Ilyich Metschnikow, 1910

In the last two decades Metschnikow dealt with philosophical questions, but on a more popular scientific level. His "optimistic philosophy" predicted a great future for mankind: through science and medicine, the essential problems of mankind could be solved, diseases eliminated, and perhaps even death conquered. Humans, who have hitherto been beset by the “disharmonies” of aging, disease, sexuality and death (Metschnikow even proclaimed a “death instinct”), could be “transformed” and will no longer need religious consolation in the future. Metschnikow imagined that this “transformation”, which had yet to be developed, could be achieved through operations, vaccinations or new diets. Mechnikov's popular philosophical books have been widely read, and the one with the nimbus of the Nobel Prize winner is called a prophet.

In May 1909 Metschnikow met Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana . He saw the religious and vegetarian writer as a kind of anti-science antipode. Metschnikow came to Russia for the last time in 1910, especially to study the plague in the Kalmyk steppe.

The fact that scientific life came to a standstill with the outbreak of World War I was a severe blow to the “optimist” Metschnikow and accelerated his decline. Having suffered from cardiovascular attacks since 1913, he died in Paris in the summer of 1916; his ashes received the Pasteur Institute as requested .

The Metschnikow Institute for Infectious Diseases was founded in Moscow in 1919 and a Metschnikow Museum in Moscow in 1926; In 1945 the University of Odessa was named after him ( National Ilya-Ilyich-Mechnikov University of Odessa ). The yeast genus Metschnikowia (Fam. Metschnikowiaceae, Saccharomyceten), a moon crater on the far side and the headland Metchnikoff Point in the Antarctic are named after him.

Fonts (selection)

  • Embryological studies on insects . Leipzig 1866, OCLC 249495154 .
  • Studies on the intracellular digestion in invertebrates (= work from the Zoological Institute of the University of Vienna and the Zoological Station in Trieste , Volume 5) 0., 1883, pp. 141-168.
  • About a Daphnia fungus disease. Contribution to teaching about the fight of phagocytes against pathogens. In: Virchow's archive for pathological anatomy. Volume 96, 1884, pp. 177-195.
  • Leçons sur la pathologie comparée de l'inflammation . Paris 1892 (Engl. The Comparative Pathology of Inflammation . London 1893).
  • L'immunité dans les maladies infectieuses . Paris 1901 (German immunity in infectious diseases . Jena 1902; English immunity in infectious diseases . Cambridge 1905).
  • Etudes sur la nature humaine. Essai de philosophie optimiste . Paris 1903 a. Ö. (Engl. The Nature of Man. Studies in Optimistic Philosophy . London 1903 and Ö .; Russian Этюды о природе человека . Moscow 1904 and Ö .; German studies on the nature of man. An optimistic philosophy . Leipzig 1904. 2nd edition Leipzig 1910).
  • Essais optimistes . Paris 1907, 2nd edition 1914. (Engl. The Prolongation of Life . London, New York 1907; German contributions to an optimistic world view . Munich 1908 .; Russian Этюды оптимизма . Moscow 1988) (continuation of the Etudes sur la nature humaine , in which Metschnikow replies to his critics).


  • Olga Metschnikow: Vie d'Élie Metschnikow 1845-1916 . Paris 1920.
  • Paul de Kruif : Microbe Hunters. Harcourt Brace & Co., New York 1926 (below). German edition: Microbe hunter. Orell Füssli Verlag, Zurich / Leipzig 1927 a. ö. (Popular scientific history of medical microbiology with Metschnikow chapter :) pp. 198–223: Elias Metschnikow. The good phagocytes.
  • Heinz Zeiss: Elias Metschnikow. Life and work. Jena 1932 (also contains the German translation of Olga Metschnikowa's biography).
  • Semyon Zalkind: Ilya Mechnikov. His Life and Work . Moscow 1959.
  • RB Vaughan: The Romantic Rationalist - A Study of Elie Metchnikoff . In: Medical History Vol. 9 (1965) No. 3, pp. 201-215.
  • Edward E. Slosson: Major Prophets of Today . Freeport, NY 1968.
  • Viktor Aleksejewitsch Frolow: Ilja Iljitsch Metschnikow . (Original title: Operedivšij vremja , translated by Marlis Mälzer and Georg Mälzer), Hirzel / Teubner, Leipzig 1984 ( DNB 850503353 - a Soviet biography).
  • Robert S. Desowitz: The Thorn in the Starfish. The Immune System and How it Works . New York 1987.
  • Leon Chernyak, Alfred I. Tauber: The Birth of Immunology: Metchnikoff, the Embryologist . In: Cellular immunology , 117 : 218-233 (1988).
  • Alfred I. Tauber, Leon Chernyak: Metchnikoff and the Origins of Immunology . New York, Oxford 1991.
  • Stephen Lovell: Finitude at the Fin de Siècle: Il'ja Mechnikov and Lev Tolstoy on Death and Life . In: The Russian Review Vol. 63 (2004), pp. 296-316 (fundamental to the history of the discovery of cellular immune defense).
  • Werner E. Gerabek : Metschnikow, Ilja Iljitsch. In: Werner E. Gerabek, Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 982 f.
  • Thomas Schmuck: Il'ja Il'ič Mečnikov - Paths of thought between philosophy and medicine . In: Heiner Kaden, Ortrun Riha (ed.): Studies on Carl Julius Fritzsche (1808–1871) and Il'ja Il'ič Mečnikov (1845–1916) . Shaker, Aachen 2008, pp. 91–170 (= Relationes Vol. 1), ISBN 978-3-8322-7560-0 .
  • А. Б. Шабров, И. В. Князькин, А. Т. Марьянович: Илья Ильич Мечников. Энциклопедия жизни и творчества (German: Ilja Iljitsch Metschnikow: life and work, an encyclopedia ). Dean, Sankt-Peterburg 2008, ISBN 978-5-93630-708-9 .

Web links

Commons : Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. a b Bernardino Fantini: Ilya Illich Metschnikow. In: Wolfgang U. Eckart , Christoph Gradmann (Hrsg.): Ärztelexikon. From antiquity to the present. 3. Edition. Springer Verlag, Heidelberg / Berlin / New York 2006, p. 226 f. Medical glossary 2006 , doi : 10.1007 / 978-3-540-29585-3 .
  2. ^ Ferdinand Sauerbruch , Hans Rudolf Berndorff : That was my life. Kindler & Schiermeyer, Bad Wörishofen 1951; cited: Licensed edition for Bertelsmann Lesering, Gütersloh 1956, p. 258.
  3. Erismann, Friedrich / Gaule, Justus / Metschnikow, Ilja: Letter from Erismann, letter from J. Gaule, letter from El. Metschnikoff on "The medical study and medical practice of women" . In: Association for Extended Women's Education (ed.): Annual report of the Association for Extended Women's Education in Vienna, supplement. Vienna 1894, p. 32 .
  4. ^ List of members since 1666: Letter M. Académie des sciences, accessed on January 22, 2020 (French).
  5. ^ Fellows Directory. Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. (PDF file) Royal Society of Edinburgh, accessed March 21, 2020 .