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170 years since the birth of the enemy of ageing Ilya Mechnikov

10 facts from the life of the great biologist, Nobel prizewinner and great lover of kefir

The outstanding biologist Ilya Mechnikov was born on 15 May 1845 in the village of Panasovka in the Kharkov province. His father was from an old Moldovan boyar family ,and his mother was the daughter of a famous Jewish journalist. Ilya Ilich preferred to work in Paris, at the Pasteur Institute. Mechnikov developed comparative embryology, and his phagocyte theory of immunity was the foundation for the body’s fight with infectious diseases. Mechnikov also officially declared a war on ageing and infirmity, laying the foundations of gerontology.

It is impossible to list all the achievements of this great scientist in one article, and so we would like to draw your attention to 10 moments in his amazing life.

1. His grandfather, the Mason in the Lutheran faith

The mother of the future scientist was the daughter of the famous Jewish writer, enlightener and financier Leib Nevakhovich. In 1806, Nevakhovich converted to Lutheranism and was granted hereditary nobility. This person combined the incompatible. One the one hand, he had incredible shrewdness in business. Nevakhovich was the main supplier of provisions for the Russian army in Poland, owned the right to manage the tobacco monopoly in the kingdom of Poland, and managed the consumer monopoly (sale of alcoholic drinks and meat) in Warsaw, and was considered one of the richest people in Poland.

On the other hand, Nevakhovich was a highly educated man, and socialized with Pushkin and Krylov. He spoke several languages, wrote artistic and philosophical works. They say that he was the only Jew in the Masonic lodge.
Although Nevakhovich was christened, all his life he stood up for the rights of his fellow Jews, speaking out against prejudices and the hostile attitude towards Jews. It is interesting that the converted Jew Nevakhovich rejected the requirement on the Christening of Jews as the condition for achieving equal rights.

2. Emilia Nevakhovich and Pushkin

Nevakhovich’s children measured up to their father’s level. His son Mikhail was a writer and published the first humorous anthology in Russia, “Yeralash”. Alexander was renowned as a dramatist, and was in charge of the repertory section of the Imperial theaters in 1837-1856.

His daughter Emilia, the mother of the future scientist, was a highly educated and charming woman. Once at a ball, Pushkin said to her: “Que vous portez bien votre nom” (How your name suits you).

Ilya Mechnikov’s wife Olga Nikolaevna recalled Emilia Mechnikov: “…her large, lively black eyes remained young, and bore testimony to her former beauty. Her kindly attitude towards everyone was charming… She took a lively interest in everything, especially if it concerned her dear Ilya, ‘the comfort of her life’, as she called him”.
There were two other sons in the family besides Ilya. The eldest brother Lev Ilich, a geographer and anarchist, was a participant of the national liberation movement in Italy. The middle brother Ivan worked as a prosecutor and was the prototype for the character in Lev Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilich” (1886).

3. The boy nicknamed “There is no God”

Contemporaries recalled that from childhood, Ilya was opposed to religion and mysticism. At the age of 13, his comrades at the high school nicknamed him “There is no God”. He was probably influenced in such radical views by his knowledge of progressive natural scientists and philosophers, and perhaps the nature of his family. It would seem that Mechnikov never saw eye to eye with the Almighty. In his will, he asked to be cremated, and the urn with his ashes to be put in the Pasteur Institute, and this was duly done. It caused a wave of indignation in Russian society.

4. From a child prodigy to a genius

Mechnikov is a vivid example of how a child prodigy can become a genius. In his sixth year at high school, Ilya translated the book by Grouvet, “Interaction of physical forces” from the French. At 16 he wrote a critical article on a geology textbook, which was published in a Moscow journal – rumors spread around the capital about the genius from Kharkov. Naturally, he graduated from high school with a gold medal and enrolled at Kharkov University at the natural section of the physics and mathematics faculty. But at the age of 18 Ilya left university in order to finish the four-year course in two years.

5. First success

The 20-year-old scientist began studying the embryology of invertebrate animals in various laboratories of Europe. For these purposes, by recommendation of Pirogov he was given a two-year scholarship. Abroad, Mechnikov made friends with the Russian biologist Alexander Kovalevsky. They became the founders of a completely special branch of biology – comparative embryology, which played an enormous role in the development of evolutionary study.
At the age of 22, when most students are just graduating, Ilya Ilich had already defended a master’s dissertation, and a year later became a doctor of zoology.

6. Love dearer than life

Ivan Ilich was married twice, and twice tried to commit suicide. Mechnikov dreamed of a family, of a smart and understanding wife. In Petersburg 1869 he married Lyudmila Fyorodovich. But his wife was so weak from tuberculosis that she was carried to the church in a chair. Mechnikov hoped to cure his beloved. He practically abandoned scientific work and began to work on translations and read lectures – anything that could provide funds for treatment abroad. But four years later Lyudmila Vasilievna died of tuberculosis in Madeira. In despair, Mechnikov drank an enormous dose of morphine. Fortunately, the dose was too great – he vomited.

The second time Mechnikov got married in Odessa at the age of 30 to the 17-year-old student Olga Belokopytova. And again he tried to commit suicide, and also because of his wife’s illness – Olga caught typhoid. Mechnikov injected himself with bilious typhoid bacteria. But after falling seriously ill, he recovered. So did his wife.

7. Politics vs. science

“…science in Russia is experiencing a lengthy and difficult crisis. There is not only no demand for science, it is at a complete dead-end,” Ilya Ilich wrote in the foreword to the book “Studies of Optimism”. He stubbornly attempted to work in his homeland, but two factors constantly hindered him: officials and the excessively active political life, because of which students and teachers were more interested in politics than science, he complained.
In Petersburg in March 1881, Tsar Alexander II was murdered. Political trials took place all over the country, but pogroms also began. Students of the Novorossiisk University protested against the persecution of the Jews and political surveillance, and arrests followed. In protest, Mechnikov left the university and opened his own laboratory.

8. The first bacteriological laboratory

In Odessa on 24 June 1886, the first bacteriological laboratory in the Russian empire was opened, which was also the second in the world after the Paris station. It was headed by the now world-famous scientist Ilya Ilich Mechnikov. The funds for this project were provided by the Odessa magnate Grigory Marazli. At the station, vaccines were prepared and developed against various infectious diseases. Lessons for doctors were held. In September 1886, courses for sanitary doctors were organized, who were supposed to take measures against the spread of cholera at border posts. But officials interfered once again. Mechnikov was literally forced out of Odessa, accused of lacking a medical degree, with accusations that people might be poisoned at the laboratory. In the end Mechnikov abandoned his creation and left to join Pasteur in Paris in 1887, and never returned. In 1908 Mechnikov received the Novel prize in the field of physiology and medicine.

9. Kefir extends life

The renowned immunologist Louis Pasteur offered Mechnikov to be the head of the laboratory of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. And later Mechnikov took his place as the head of the research center at the institute when Pasteur stepped down from the position.

A huge place in Mechnikov’s works was occupied by issues of ageing. Scientists regarded this process as disease, and so they had to look for ways of treating it. Mechnikov believed that old age and death take place as a result of the self-poisoning of the body by microbes and other poisons. He conducted a series of studies on the duration of people’s lives in different countries, and proposed a number of ways of combating the self-poisoning of the body. But Mechnikov believed that the main method to combat aging was the Bulgarian sour-milk bacillus – Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. Bulgaricus. Mechnikov began to advocate Bulgarian yoghurt and regularly drank it himself.

10. “Remembered with gratitude…”

Ilya Mechnikov created the first Russian school of microbiologists, immunologists and pathologists. A number of universities, and also bacteriological and immunological institutes of Ukraine and Russia, bear the name of Mechnikov. For example, the Odessa national university, where he worked, and the bacteriological station, which is now known as the scientific research institute of virology and epidemiology.
Ilya Ilich died in Paris on 15 July 1916. He was 71 years old.



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