The forgotten yet unforgettable scientist

The first modern, English-language biography of the father of natural immunity has been produced by an Israeli science journalist.

LUBA VIKHANSKI (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Don’t feel ignorant if you’ve never heard of Eli Metchnikoff – the Russian-born zoologist considered the “father of natural immunity” and co-winner (with Paul Ehrlich) of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1908 whose 100th anniversary of his death at the age of 71, in 1916, will be marked in July.
As this paper’s health and science editor, I had never heard of him before reading this outstanding, enlightening and delightful biography, Immunity: How Eli Metchnikoff Changed the Face of Modern Medicine.
It is the first modern biography of the great scientist in English (although a semi-fictionalized book on his life with invented dialogue was issued in New York in 1968).
Ironically, it was precisely because its author, Moscow-born Luba Vikhanski – whose parents were refuseniks unable to leave Russia until their aliya 30 years ago – had heard so much about Metchnikoff in the Soviet school system that she thought he was a fake. She could not believe all the biographical details written by his second wife Olga in Life of Elie Metchnikoff, as well as books and articles written about him in Russia.
“In his homeland, Ilya Ilyich Metchnikoff was not just remembered, but revered… He was known as the Russian Pasteur and upheld as a shining example of national talent.
In company with Russia’s other historic heroes, he was a cult figure, glorified by the Soviet regime as a way of instilling in the population a sense of belonging to a great nation.”
The textbooks left out the fact that Metchnikoff was born to a Jewish mother, Emilia – the daughter of the Polish-born Leiba Nevakhovich, a Jewish author and businessman who in the late 18th century had tried for a better life in St. Petersburg, where he converted to Christianity.
“Like many children of dissidents...I loathed this hero worship,” recalled Vikhanski. “In fact, I secretly suspected that Metchnikoff was a fake, together with most other Russian greats in my textbook, their accomplishments primarily products of Communist propaganda.
When I left Russia for good at 17, I would have been quite happy never to hear about any of them again.”
More than a decade ago, working as a science journalist for the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Vikhanski was looking for little-known but important episodes in the history of science and asked British immunology Prof. Leslie Brent to list great immunologists whose life stories, in his opinion, had yet to be properly told. He quickly mentioned Metchnikoff, causing Vikhanski to think: “Had I wrongly dismissed a genius in my overall rejection of the party line? She began to research the topic, possibly as a magazine article. At her own expense, Vikhanski followed the scientist’s trail to the European cities where he lived and pursued his scientific career. The result is a thick book of 48 chapters, hundreds of notes and an endless bibliographical list of sources.
“My initial intent was to write a book about an unjustly forgotten scientist.
Then something unexpected happened: Metchnikoff’s luck, I realized, had suddenly changed. In the 2000s, during the years in which I was rediscovering him, world of science was rediscovering him as well.”
To be released in April by a small publishing house, Chicago Review Press, Vikhanski’s biography of Metchnikoff was 10 years in the making.
COVERING THE development of scientific concepts that we now take for granted; offering a blow-by-blow description of Metchnikoff’s conceptual battles with German microbiologist Robert Koch; noting his two wives, tragedies and a possible “love child,” following Metchnikoff from Russia and finally to the Pasteur Institute in Paris where his cremated ashes are stored, Vikhanski’s book could easily be made into a movie.
“It was the story of a boy who grew up in an obscure village, dreamed about creating a theory that would revolutionize medicine – and went on to author the modern concept of immunity as an inner curative power,” she writes.
”The year 1861, when Metchnikoff turned 16, was a critical turning point for Russia. Two years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Tsar Alexander II passed the most famous of his Great Reforms, the Emancipation Manifesto, freeing the serfs. In something like a 19th century perestroika, the country shifted toward a degree of freedom, but it also seethed with unrest.
Russian peasants received so little land that many believed the manifesto had been a forgery, the tsar’s “real” decree having been stolen by the landlords; a few even picked up their axes to loot the estates. Radical intellectuals, equally dissatisfied, picked up their pens to demand faster reforms. Students took to the streets to demonstrate,” she wrote.
Metchnikoff had wanted to study medicine after finishing high school at age 17 with a gold medal, the highest honor. Becoming a physician was “then the top choice for young Russians seeking to improve the lot of humanity. He felt inspired by the cell theory of disease, recently created by the celebrated German pathologist Rudolf Virchow. By showing that cells were altered in disease, and that by examining cells physicians could diagnose cancer and other disorders, Virchow had turned the entire medical world into his disciples. Young Metchnikoff dreamed of creating his own theory in medicine. He wanted to have an impact on medical science on the same scale as Virchow.”
His mother discouraged him, however, arguing that he was “too sensitive to view the constant sight of human suffering,” so he spent only two years speeding through a four-year course in the natural sciences at the University of Kharkov.
When he turned 20, “an age when most young scientists are still mastering the basics, Metchnikoff embarked upon research that would soon turn him into a founder of a new branch of science,” Vikhanski writes. The path was not simple, as his frequent vaccination of animals against rabies and humans against other infectious diseases did not always succeed, because the techniques had to be perfected.
“Today we take it for granted that our immune system protects us from within; it is hard to imagine that just over a century ago, mainstream medicine had no notion of the body’s inner defenses. Then one day in the early 1880s, Metchnikoff straightened his spectacles, peered into his microscope, and declared that he was watching a curative force in action.”
Studying various aquatic creatures, insects and other primitive animals, Metchnikoff in 1882 discovered phagocytes (ingesting cells capable of engulfing and absorbing bacteria and other small cells and particles that, he argued, were the major defense mechanism in innate immunity.”
Metchnikoff proudly proclaimed that his theory was “based on the law of evolution. Those of the lower animals that were possessed of mobile cells to englobe and destroy the enemy, survived, whereas others whose phagocytes did not exercise their function were necessarily destined to perish.”
Metchnikoff’s main rivals were the German bacteriologists Emil Behring, Paul Ehrlich and Robert Koch, who dismissed phagocyte theory and advocated the non-cellular theory of immunity. They believed and promoted the humoral theory of immunity, arguing that disease agents spread through the body “humors.” This group of scientists, however, discovered new toxins, antitoxins and bacteria and developed vaccines against numerous viral diseases.
“In fact, we can now say that both Metchnikoff and his rivals had discovered different but equally fundamental parts of the immune system.
This system faces a formidable task in ensuring our survival. Both the cells and the body fluids participate in this ongoing defense. Had Metchnikoff and his detractors paused to take an unbiased look at the evidence, perhaps they would have realized this. But neither side took that pause.”
Metchnikoff, a self-declared atheist who avoided politics, nearly committed suicide twice. The first time was when his first wife Ludmilla died of tuberculosis after 10 years of marriage. The desolate Metchnikoff swallowed large amounts of opium, but was saved from death by vomiting it up.
The next brush with suicide was when his second wife Olga took ill with typhoid fever He inoculated himself with relapsing fever to find out whether it was transmissible by the blood. The case of fever he contracted was serious, but he survived like a cat with nine lives.
He and his fellow researchers risked their lives to study cholera, which, like other infectious diseases such as smallpox, rabies, diphtheria, typhoid, anthrax, ravaged the world. They drank “glass after glass of water mixed with cholera germs from the Seine, from the stools of sick people, from a fountain on one of the squares in Versailles.” In that era, experimenting on oneself was not considered foolhardy and in violation of medical ethics, but heroic.
Unhappy in Russia, he moved from Odessa to Paris to see the famed Louis Pasteur and was offered a lab and an appointment to his institute, where Metchnikoff remained the rest of his life (and beyond).
“There was instant chemistry between the two men. They had a great deal in common: both were outsiders storming the world of medicine with radical ideas – the chemist Pasteur with his vaccines, the zoologist Metchnikoff with his theory of immunity – and both shared an excitable temperament.”
Metchnikoff and colleagues at the Pasteur Institute imported expensive monkeys, proving that syphilis can be transmitted to primates and developing treatments.
Metchnikoff had a personal encounter with Koch, and it didn’t go well, due to differences in temperament and scientific beliefs.
“It is a testimony to the generosity of his spirit that in years to come, [Metchnikoff] continued to revere Koch as a scientist, even nominating him for the very first Nobel Prize.
He was to host Koch graciously in Paris and, after Koch’s death, placed a wreath in his mausoleum on a visit to Berlin.
Koch, on the other hand, after their first meeting, had gone as far as to besmirch Metchnikoff in a letter to a colleague. This letter has now been lost, but according to a science historian who had read it earlier, Koch’s description of Metchnikoff had amounted to an attempt at character assassination.”
Unlike his former student, his beautiful, blonde wife Olga, Metchnikoff was seen at the institute with disheveled hair and a thick bearing, wearing galoshes and carrying an umbrella all the time, his coat pockets stuffed with research papers.
Vikhanski skillfully combined a myriad of facts she dug up from reliable journalistic reports (even one describing dresses that Olga liked to wear), scientific papers and books, interviews and personal visits, never embroidering them.
The volume is dotted with the names of the illustrious – Freud, Conan Doyle, Tolstoy, Dreyfus, Goethe, George Bernard Shaw and others, some of whom Metchnikoff even met.
As Metchnikoff had decided for ideological reasons to have no children, Vikhanski was consumed with curiosity about finding a possible descendant. Emile Remy, a scientific illustrator at the Pasteur Institute, and his wife were close to Metchnikoff, who served as the obsessive godfather of their first baby, Lili. It is possible that he was actually her father, Vikhanski and others have suggested.
Vikhanski was given permission to break open four safe deposit boxes in a Parisian bank that had belonged to Lili’s son, Jacques Saada, but remained shut after his death. The author studied hundreds of relevant documents before returning them.
With details about atmosphere, fashion and behavior, the author beautifully captures the various eras through which Metchnikoff lived.
THE ZOOLOGIST, whose ideas on immunity became accepted, turned his attention to the decline in his own body systems and invented the word “gerontology.” Believing that the large intestine was full of “toxins” that led to aging and basing his idea on the long lives of people in Bulgaria who drank soured milk, he insisted that yogurt – and the probiotic bacteria in it – could prolong life.
He drank it daily.
Today, these ideas are no longer part of complementary medicine and are being studied by conventional researchers. When he was on his deathbed due to heart problems, he worried that his premature death might make future generations doubt his insistence that clean living can extend human life to 150 years.
On the afternoon of July 15, 1916, near the end of the World War I, Metchnikoff asked a medical colleague: “You are a friend. Tell me – is this the end?” Despite the doctor’s protests, Metchnikoff responded with instructions about his own autopsy: paying special attention to his intestines.
“I beg you, don’t make such abrupt movements, you know it’s bad for you,” Olga pleaded with him after he’d moved brusquely. He did not answer. Olga looked up at her just-departed husband.
“His head was thrown back on the pillow, his face had turned bluish, his eyes had rolled behind half-closed lids...Not a word, not a sound...All was over.”
Millions of people were dying in a world war that had been raging for nearly two years, but this particular death was major news around the globe, Vikhanski wrote. The international press was unanimous in praising Metchnikoff, placing him beside Pasteur, Lord Lister and Robert Koch among “the immortals in the lifesaving science of bacteriology.”