Élie Metchnikoff

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Élie Metchnikoff
Ilya Mechnikov nobel.jpg
Élie Metchnikoff, c. 1908
Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov

15 May [ O.S. 3 May] 1845
Died15 July 1916(1916-07-15) (aged 71)
Nationality Russian
Alma mater
Known for Phagocytosis
cell-mediated immunity
Awards Copley Medal (1906)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1908)
Albert Medal (1916)
Scientific career
Institutions Imperial Novorossiya University
University of St. Petersburg
Pasteur Institute

Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (Russian :Илья́ Ильи́ч Ме́чников, also written as Élie Metchnikoff; 15 May [ O.S. 3 May] 1845 15 July 1916) [1] [note 1] was a Russian [2] zoologist best known for his pioneering research in immunology. [3] [4] [5]

Russian language East Slavic language

Russian is an East Slavic language, which is official in the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as being widely used throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was the de facto language of the Soviet Union until its dissolution on 25 December 1991. Although nearly three decades have passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian is used in official capacity or in public life in all the post-Soviet nation-states, as well as in Israel and Mongolia.

Old Style and New Style dates 16th-century changes in calendar conventions

Old Style (O.S.) and New Style (N.S.) are terms sometimes used with dates to indicate that the calendar convention used at the time described is different from that in use at the time the document was being written. There were two calendar changes in Great Britain and its colonies, which may sometimes complicate matters: the first was to change the start of the year from Lady Day to 1 January; the second was to discard the Julian calendar in favour of the Gregorian calendar. Closely related is the custom of dual dating, where writers gave two consecutive years to reflect differences in the starting date of the year, or to include both the Julian and Gregorian dates.

Russians are an East Slavic ethnic group native to Eastern Europe, the most numerous ethnic group in Europe. The majority of ethnic Russians live in the Russian Federation, notable minorities exist in other former Soviet states such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Ukraine and the Baltic states. A large Russian diaspora also exists all over the world, with notable numbers in the United States, Germany, Brazil, and Canada. The culture of the ethnic Russian people has a long tradition and it is a foundation for the modern culture of the whole of Russia. The Russian language originally was the language of ethnic Russians. They are historically Orthodox Christians by religion.


In particular, he is credited with the discovery of phagocytes (macrophages) in 1882. This discovery turned out to be the major defence mechanism in innate immunity. [6] He and Paul Ehrlich were jointly awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "in recognition of their work on immunity". [7] He is also credited by some sources with coining the term gerontology in 1903, for the emerging study of aging and longevity. [8] [9] He established the concept of cell-mediated immunity, while Ehrlich established the concept of humoral immunity. Their works are regarded as the foundation of the science of immunology. [10] In immunology, he is given an epithet the "father of natural immunity". [11]

Phagocyte Cells that protect the body by ingesting harmful foreign particles, bacteria, and dead or dying cells

Phagocytes are cells that protect the body by ingesting harmful foreign particles, bacteria, and dead or dying cells. Their name comes from the Greek phagein, "to eat" or "devour", and "-cyte", the suffix in biology denoting "cell", from the Greek kutos, "hollow vessel". They are essential for fighting infections and for subsequent immunity. Phagocytes are important throughout the animal kingdom and are highly developed within vertebrates. One litre of human blood contains about six billion phagocytes. They were discovered in 1882 by Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov while he was studying starfish larvae. Mechnikov was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery. Phagocytes occur in many species; some amoebae behave like macrophage phagocytes, which suggests that phagocytes appeared early in the evolution of life.

Macrophage type of white blood cell

Macrophages are a type of white blood cell, of the immune system, that engulfs and digests cellular debris, foreign substances, microbes, cancer cells, and anything else that does not have the type of proteins specific to healthy body cells on its surface in a process called phagocytosis.

Paul Ehrlich German biologist

Paul Ehrlich was a Nobel prize-winning German-Jewish physician and scientist who worked in the fields of hematology, immunology, and antimicrobial chemotherapy. He is credited with finding a cure for syphilis in 1909. He invented the precursor technique to Gram staining bacteria. The methods he developed for staining tissue made it possible to distinguish between different types of blood cells, which led to the capability to diagnose numerous blood diseases.

Life and work

Mechnikov was born in the village Ivanovka , Kharkov Governorate, now Dvorichna Raion, Ukraine. He was the youngest of five children of Ilya Ivanovich Mechnikov, a Russian officer of the Imperial Guard. [5] His mother, Emilia Lvovna (Nevakhovich), the daughter of the Jewish writer Leo Nevakhovich, largely influenced him on his education, especially in science. [12] [13] The family name Mechnikov is a translation from Romanian, since his father was a descendant of the Chancellor Yuri Stefanovich, the grandson of Nicolae Milescu. The word "mech" is a Russian translation of the Romanian "spadă" (sword), which originated with Spătar. His elder brother Lev became a prominent geographer and sociologist. [14]

Kharkov Governorate

Kharkov Governorate was a governorate of the Russian Empire founded in 1835. It embraced the historical region of Sloboda Ukraine. From 1765 to 1780 and from 1796 to 1835 the governorate was called the Sloboda Ukraine Governorate. In 1780-1796 there existed the Kharkov Viceroyalty.

Dvorichna Raion Raion in Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine

Dvorichna Raion is a raion (district) in Kharkiv Oblast of Ukraine. Its administrative center is the urban-type settlement of Dvorichna.

Ukraine Sovereign state in Eastern Europe

Ukraine, sometimes called the Ukraine, is a country in Eastern Europe. Excluding Crimea, Ukraine has a population of about 42.5 million, making it the 32nd most populous country in the world. Its capital and largest city is Kiev. Ukrainian is the official language and its alphabet is Cyrillic. The dominant religions in the country are Eastern Orthodoxy and Greek Catholicism. Ukraine is currently in a territorial dispute with Russia over the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. Including Crimea, Ukraine has an area of 603,628 km2 (233,062 sq mi), making it the largest country entirely within Europe and the 46th largest country in the world.

He entered Kharkiv Lycée in 1856 where he developed his interest in biology. Convinced by his mother to study natural sciences instead of medicine, in 1862 he tried to study biology at the University of Würzburg, but the German academic session would not start by the end of the year. So he enrolled at Kharkiv University for natural sciences, completing his four-year degree in two years. In 1864 he went to Germany to study marine fauna on the small North Sea island of Heligoland. He was advised by the botanist Ferdinand Cohn to work with Rudolf Leuckart at the University of Giessen. It was in Leuckart's laboratory that he made his first scientific discovery of alternation of generations (sexual and asexual) in nematodes and then at Munich Academy. In 1865, while at Giessen, he discovered intracellular digestion in flatworm, and this study influenced his later works. Moving to Naples the next year he worked on a doctoral thesis on the embryonic development of the cuttle-fish Sepiola and the crustacean Nebalia . A cholera epidemic in the autumn of 1865 made him move to the University of Göttingen, where he worked briefly with W. M. Keferstein and Jakob Henle. In 1867 he returned to Russia to get his doctorate with Alexander Kovalevsky from the University of St. Petersburg. Together they won the Karl Ernst von Baer prize for their theses on the development of germ layers in invertebrate embryos. Mechnikov was appointed docent at the newly established Imperial Novorossiya University (now Odessa University). Only twenty-two years of age, he was younger than his students. After involving in a conflict with senior colleague over attending scientific meeting, in 1868 he transferred to the University of St. Petersburg, where he experienced a worse professional environment. In 1870 he returned to Odessa to take up the appointment of Titular Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. [5] [12]

University of Würzburg university in Germany

The Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg is a public research university in Würzburg, Germany. The University of Würzburg is one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Germany, having been founded in 1402. The university initially had a brief run and was closed in 1415. It was reopened in 1582 on the initiative of Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn. Today, the university is named for Julius Echter von Mespelbrunn and Maximilian Joseph.

Germany Federal parliamentary republic in central-western Europe

Germany, officially the Federal Republic of Germany, is a country in Central and Western Europe, lying between the Baltic and North Seas to the north, and the Alps, Lake Constance and the High Rhine to the south. It borders Denmark to the north, Poland and the Czech Republic to the east, Austria and Switzerland to the south, France to the southwest, and Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands to the west.

North Sea marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean

The North Sea is a marginal sea of the Atlantic Ocean located between the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. An epeiric sea on the European continental shelf, it connects to the ocean through the English Channel in the south and the Norwegian Sea in the north. It is more than 970 kilometres (600 mi) long and 580 kilometres (360 mi) wide, with an area of 570,000 square kilometres (220,000 sq mi).

In 1882 he resigned from Odessa University due to political turmoils after the assassination of Alexander II. He went to Sicily to set up his private laboratory in Messina. He returned to Odessa as director of an institute set up to carry out Louis Pasteur's vaccine against rabies; due to some difficulties, he left in 1888 and went to Paris to seek Pasteur's advice. Pasteur gave him an appointment at the Pasteur Institute, where he remained for the rest of his life. [5]

Alexander II of Russia Emperor of Russia

Alexander II was the Emperor of Russia from 2 March 1855 until his assassination on 13 March 1881. He was also the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Finland.

Sicily Island in the Mediterranean and region of Italy

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and one of the 20 regions of Italy. It is one of the five Italian autonomous regions, in Southern Italy along with surrounding minor islands, officially referred to as Regione Siciliana.

Messina Comune in Sicily, Italy

Messina is the capital of the Italian Metropolitan City of Messina. It is the third largest city on the island of Sicily, and the 13th largest city in Italy, with a population of more than 238,000 inhabitants in the city proper and about 650,000 in the Metropolitan City. It is located near the northeast corner of Sicily, at the Strait of Messina, opposite Villa San Giovanni on the mainland, and has close ties with Reggio Calabria. According to Eurostat the FUA of the metropolitan area of Messina has, in 2014, 277,584 inhabitants.


Metchnikoff, c.1910-1915. Elie Metchnikoff - Between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915 - LOC.jpg
Metchnikoff, c.1910–1915.

Mechnikov became interested in the study of microbes, and especially the immune system. At Messina he discovered phagocytosis after experimenting on the larvae of starfish. In 1882 he first demonstrated the process when he inserted small citrus thorns into starfish larvae, then found unusual cells surrounding the thorns. He realized that in animals which have blood, the white blood cells gather at the site of inflammation, and he hypothesised that this could be the process by which bacteria were attacked and killed by the white blood cells. He discussed his hypothesis with Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Claus, Professor of Zoology at the University of Vienna, who suggested to him the term "phagocyte" for a cell which can surround and kill pathogens. He delivered his findings at Odessa University in 1883. [5]

Immune system A biological system that protects an organism against disease

The immune system is a host defense system comprising many biological structures and processes within an organism that protects against disease. To function properly, an immune system must detect a wide variety of agents, known as pathogens, from viruses to parasitic worms, and distinguish them from the organism's own healthy tissue. In many species, the immune system can be classified into subsystems, such as the innate immune system versus the adaptive immune system, or humoral immunity versus cell-mediated immunity. In humans, the blood–brain barrier, blood–cerebrospinal fluid barrier, and similar fluid–brain barriers separate the peripheral immune system from the neuroimmune system, which protects the brain.

Phagocytosis An endocytosis process that results in the engulfment of external particulate material by phagocytes. The particles are initially contained within phagocytic vacuoles (phagosomes), which then fuse with primary lysosomes to effect digestion of the par

Phagocytosis is the process by which a cell uses its plasma membrane to engulf a large particle, giving rise to an internal compartment called the phagosome. It is one type of endocytosis.

Larva juvenile form of distinct animals before metamorphosis

A larva is a distinct juvenile form many animals undergo before metamorphosis into adults. Animals with indirect development such as insects, amphibians, or cnidarians typically have a larval phase of their life cycle.

His theory, that certain white blood cells could engulf and destroy harmful bodies such as bacteria, met with scepticism from leading specialists including Louis Pasteur, Behring and others. At the time, most bacteriologists believed that white blood cells ingested pathogens and then spread them further through the body. His major supporter was Rudolf Virchow, who published his research in his Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und für klinische Medizin (now called the Virchows Archiv ). [12] His discovery of these phagocytes ultimately won him the Nobel Prize in 1908. He worked with Émile Roux on calomel (mercurous chloride) in ointment form in an attempt to prevent people from contracting the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. [7] [ not in citation given ]

In 1887, he observed that leukocytes isolated from the blood of various animals were attracted towards certain bacteria. [15] The first studies of leukocyte killing in the presence of specific antiserum were performed by Joseph Denys and Joseph Leclef, followed by Leon Marchand and Mennes between 1895 and 1898. Almoth E. Wright was the first to quantify this phenomenon and strongly advocated its potential therapeutic importance. The so-called resolution of the humoralist and cellularist positions by showing their respective roles in the setting of enhanced killing in the presence of opsonins was popularized by Wright after 1903, although Metchnikoff acknowledged the stimulatory capacity of immunosentisitized serum on phagotic function in the case of acquired immunity. [16]

This attraction was soon proposed to be due to soluble elements released by the bacteria [17] (see Harris [18] for a review of this area up to 1953). Some 85 years after this seminal observation, laboratory studies showed that these elements were low molecular weight (between 150 and 1500 Dalton (unit)s) N-formylated oligopeptides, including the most prominent member of this group, N-Formylmethionine-leucyl-phenylalanine, that are made by a variety of replicating gram positive bacteria and gram negative bacteria. [19] [20] [21] [22] Mechnikov's early observation, then, was the foundation for studies that defined a critical mechanism by which bacteria attract leukocytes to initiate and direct the innate immune response of acute inflammation to sites of host invasion by pathogens.

Mechnikov also developed a theory that aging is caused by toxic bacteria in the gut and that lactic acid could prolong life. Based on this theory, he drank sour milk every day. He wrote The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies, in which he espoused the potential life-lengthening properties of lactic acid bacteria ( Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus ). [23] [24] He attributed the longevity of Bulgarian peasants to their yogurt consumption. [25]


Mechnikov died in 1916 in Paris from heart failure. [26] According to his will, his body was used for medical research and afterwards cremated in Père Lachaise Cemetery crematorium. His cinerary urn has been placed in the Pasteur Institute library. [27]

Personal life and views

Mechnikov was married to his first wife Ludmila Feodorovitch in 1863. She died from tuberculosis on 20 April 1873. Her death, combined with other problems, caused Mechnikov to unsuccessfully attempt suicide, taking a large dose of opium. In 1875, he married his student Olga Belokopytova. [11] In 1885 Olga suffered from severe typhoid and this led to his second suicide attempt. [5] He injected himself with the spirochete of relapsing fever. (Olga died in 1944 in Paris from typhoid.) [12]

Mechnikov was an atheist. [28]

He was greatly influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. He first read Fritz Müller's Für Darwin (For Darwin) in Giessen. From this he became a supporter of natural selection and Ernst Haeckel's biogenetic law. [29] His scientific works and theories were inspired by Darwinism. [30]

Awards and recognitions

Mechnikov with Alexander Kovalevsky won the Karl Ernst von Baer prize in 1867 based on their doctoral research. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1908 with Paul Ehrlich . He was awarded honorary degree from the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK, and the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1906. He was given honorary memberships in the Academy of Medicine in Paris and the Academy of Sciences and Medicine in St. Petersburg. [29] The Leningrad Medical Institute of Hygiene and Sanitation, founded in 1911 was merged with Saint Petersburg State Medical Academy of Postgraduate Studies in 2011 to become the North-Western State Medical University named after I.I. Mechnikov. [31] [32] The Odessa I.I. Mechnikov National University is in Odessa, Ukraine. [33]


Metchnikoff wrote notable books such as: [6] [11]


  1. Some sources give Metchnikoff's new-style birth date as 16 May, but this is believed by the Nobel Prize Committee to be an error started by Metchnikoff himself in converting a nineteenth century date from old-style to new-style. [1]

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  1. 1 2 "Ilya Mechnikov: Biographical". Nobel Prizes. Retrieved 14 May 2019.
  2. Élie Metchnikoff at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. Belkin, R.I. (1964). "Commentary," in I.I. Mechnikov, Academic Collection of Works, vol. 16. Moscow: Meditsina. p. 434. Belkin, a Russian science historian, explains why Metchnikoff himself, in his Nobel autobiography – and subsequently, many other sources – mistakenly cited his date of birth as May 16 instead of May 15. Metchnikoff made the mistake of adding 13 days to May 3, his Old-Style birthday, as was the convention in the 20th century. But since he had been born in the 19th century, only 12 days should have been added.
  4. Vikhanski, Luba (2016). Immunity: How Elie Metchnikoff Changed the Course of Modern Medicine. Chicago Review Press. p. 278. ISBN   978-1613731109. The author cites Metchnikoff's death certificate, according to which he died on July 15, 1916 (the original is in the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Metchnikoff Fund, 584-2-208). Olga Metchnikoff did not provide a precise date for her husband's death in her book, and many sources erroneously cite it as July 16.
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  10. Kaufmann, Stefan H E (2008). "Immunology's foundation: the 100-year anniversary of the Nobel Prize to Paul Ehrlich and Elie Metchnikoff". Nature Immunology. 9 (7): 705–712. doi:10.1038/ni0708-705. PMID   18563076.
  11. 1 2 3 Gordon, Siamon (2008). "Elie Metchnikoff: Father of natural immunity". European Journal of Immunology. 38 (12): 3257–3264. doi:10.1002/eji.200838855. PMID   19039772.
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  14. White, James D (1976). "Despotism and Anarchy: The Sociological Thought of L. I. Mechnikov". The Slavonic and East European Review. 54 (3): 395–411. JSTOR   4207300.
  15. Metchnikoff E (1887). "Sur la lutte des cellules de l'organisme contre l'invasion des microbes". Ann. Inst. Pasteur. 1: 321.
  16. Tauber& Cherniak (1991). Metchnikoff and the Origins of Immunology: From Metaphor to Theory. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press. p. 155. ISBN   0-19-506447-X.
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  23. Mackowiak, Philip A. (2013). "Recycling Metchnikoff: Probiotics, the Intestinal Microbiome and the Quest for Long Life". Frontiers in Public Health. 1: 52. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2013.00052. PMC   3859987 . PMID   24350221.
  24. Podolsky, Scott H (2012). "Metchnikoff and the microbiome". The Lancet. 380 (9856): 1810–1811. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)62018-2. PMID   23189332.
  25. Brown, AC; Valiere, A (2004). "Probiotics and medical nutrition therapy". Nutrition in Clinical Care. 7 (2): 56–68. PMC   1482314 . PMID   15481739.
  26. B. I. Goldstein (21 July 1916). "Elie Metchnikoff". Canadian Jewish Chronicle . Retrieved 17 November 2012.
  27. http://www.m-necropol.ru/mechnikov-ii.html
  28. Tauber, Alfred I.; Chernyak, Leon (1991). Metchnikoff and the Origins of Immunology : From Metaphor to Theory: From Metaphor to Theory. New York (US): Oxford University Press. p. 5. ISBN   978-0-1953451-00. There is no clear record that he was professionally restricted in Russia because of his lineage, but he sympathized with the problem his Jewish colleagues suffered owing to Russian anti-Semitism; his personal religious commitment was to atheism, although he received strict Christian religious training at home. Metchnikoff's atheism smacked of religious fervor in the embrace of rationalism and science. We may fairly argue that Metchnikoff's religion was based on the belief that rational scientific discourse was the solution for human suffering.
  29. 1 2 "Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (Elie Metchnikoff) (1845–1916)". The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  30. Thomas F., Glick (1988). The Comparative Reception of Darwinism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 244. ISBN   978-0-226-29977-8.
  31. "North-Western State Medical University I.I. Mechnikov". FAIMER. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  32. "North-Western State Medical University named after I.I. Mechnikov". North-Western State Medical University named after I.I. Mechnikov. Retrieved 17 March 2015.
  33. "Odessa I.I. Mechnikov national university". Odessa I.I. Mechnikov national university. Retrieved 17 March 2015.

Further reading