Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov
Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (15 July 1916) was a Russian
The Russian people are an East Slavic ethnic group native to Russia, speaking the Russian language and primarily living in Russia and neighboring countries....

A biologist is a scientist devoted to and producing results in biology through the study of life. Typically biologists study organisms and their relationship to their environment. Biologists involved in basic research attempt to discover underlying mechanisms that govern how organisms work...

, zoologist and protozoologist, best remembered for his pioneering research into the immune system
Immune system
An immune system is a system of biological structures and processes within an organism that protects against disease by identifying and killing pathogens and tumor cells. It detects a wide variety of agents, from viruses to parasitic worms, and needs to distinguish them from the organism's own...

. Mechnikov received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908, shared with Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich was a German scientist in the fields of hematology, immunology, and chemotherapy, and Nobel laureate. He is noted for curing syphilis and for his research in autoimmunity, calling it "horror autotoxicus"...

, for his work on phagocytosis. He is also credited by some sources with coining the term gerontology
Gerontology is the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of aging...

 in 1903, for the emerging study of aging and longevity.

Early years

Mechnikov was born in a village near Kharkiv
Kharkiv or Kharkov is the second-largest city in Ukraine.The city was founded in 1654 and was a major centre of Ukrainian culture in the Russian Empire. Kharkiv became the first city in Ukraine where the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed in December 1917 and Soviet government was...

, Ukraine
Ukraine is a country in Eastern Europe. It has an area of 603,628 km², making it the second largest contiguous country on the European continent, after Russia...

, Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

 the youngest son of Ilya Mechnikov, a Guard officer, and Emilia Mechnikova (née Nevakhovich). His maternal grandfather Lev Nevakhovich was the first Russo-Jewish writer and founder of the Haskala movement in Russia. The family name Mechnikov is a translation from Romanian
Romanian language
Romanian Romanian Romanian (or Daco-Romanian; obsolete spellings Rumanian, Roumanian; self-designation: română, limba română ("the Romanian language") or românește (lit. "in Romanian") is a Romance language spoken by around 24 to 28 million people, primarily in Romania and Moldova...

, since his father was a descendant of the Chancellor Yuri Stefanovich, the grandson of Nicolae Milescu
Nicolae Milescu
Nicolae Milescu was a Moldavian writer, traveler, geographer, and diplomat. Milescu spoke 9 languages: Romanian, Latin, Greek, Modern Greek, French, German, Turkish, Swedish and Russian...

. The word "mech" is a Russian translation of the Romanian "spadă" (sword), which originated with Spătar
Historical Romanian ranks and titles
This is a glossary of historical Romanian ranks and titles used in the principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania, and later in Romania. Many of these titles are of Slavic etymology, with some of Greek, Byzantine, Latin, and Turkish etymology; several are original...

. His elder brother Lev became a prominent geographer and sociologist. Mechnikov developed a passion for natural history
Natural history
Natural history is the scientific research of plants or animals, leaning more towards observational rather than experimental methods of study, and encompasses more research published in magazines than in academic journals. Grouped among the natural sciences, natural history is the systematic study...

. When Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
Charles Robert Darwin FRS was an English naturalist. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestry, and proposed the scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.He published his theory...

's The Origin of Species
The Origin of Species
Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published on 24 November 1859, is a work of scientific literature which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. Its full title was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the...

was published, Ilya vehemently undertook the survival of the fittest
Survival of the fittest
"Survival of the fittest" is a phrase originating in evolutionary theory, as an alternative description of Natural selection. The phrase is today commonly used in contexts that are incompatible with the original meaning as intended by its first two proponents: British polymath philosopher Herbert...

, testing and teaching it.

He attended Kharkiv University
Kharkiv University
The University of Kharkiv or officially the Vasyl Karazin Kharkiv National University is one of the major universities in Ukraine, and earlier in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union...

 where he studied natural sciences, completing his four-year degree in two years. He then went to Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 to study marine fauna on the small North Sea
North Sea
In the southwest, beyond the Straits of Dover, the North Sea becomes the English Channel connecting to the Atlantic Ocean. In the east, it connects to the Baltic Sea via the Skagerrak and Kattegat, narrow straits that separate Denmark from Norway and Sweden respectively...

 island of Heligoland
Heligoland is a small German archipelago in the North Sea.Formerly Danish and British possessions, the islands are located in the Heligoland Bight in the south-eastern corner of the North Sea...

 and then at the University of Giessen
University of Giessen
The University of Giessen is officially called the Justus Liebig University Giessen after its most famous faculty member, Justus von Liebig, the founder of modern agricultural chemistry and inventor of artificial fertiliser.-History:The University of Gießen is among the oldest institutions of...

, University of Göttingen and then at Munich Academy. In 1867 he returned to Russia to the appointment of docent
Docent is a title at some European universities to denote a specific academic appointment within a set structure of academic ranks below professor . Docent is also used at some universities generically for a person who has the right to teach...

 at the new Odesa University, followed by an appointment at the University of St. Petersburg. In 1870 he returned to Odessa
Odessa or Odesa is the administrative center of the Odessa Oblast located in southern Ukraine. The city is a major seaport located on the northwest shore of the Black Sea and the fourth largest city in Ukraine with a population of 1,029,000 .The predecessor of Odessa, a small Tatar settlement,...

 to take up the appointment of Titular Professor of Zoology
Zoology |zoölogy]]), is the branch of biology that relates to the animal kingdom, including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits, and distribution of all animals, both living and extinct...

 and Comparative Anatomy
Comparative anatomy
Comparative anatomy is the study of similarities and differences in the anatomy of organisms. It is closely related to evolutionary biology and phylogeny .-Description:...



Mechnikov became interested in the study of microbes, and especially the immune system
Immune system
An immune system is a system of biological structures and processes within an organism that protects against disease by identifying and killing pathogens and tumor cells. It detects a wide variety of agents, from viruses to parasitic worms, and needs to distinguish them from the organism's own...

. In 1882 he resigned his position at Odesa University and set up a private laboratory at Messina to study comparative embryology
Embryology is a science which is about the development of an embryo from the fertilization of the ovum to the fetus stage...

, where he discovered phagocytosis after experimenting on the larva
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...

e of starfish. He realised that the process of digestion in micro-organisms was essentially the same as that carried out by white blood cells. His theory, that certain white blood cell
White blood cell
White blood cells, or leukocytes , are cells of the immune system involved in defending the body against both infectious disease and foreign materials. Five different and diverse types of leukocytes exist, but they are all produced and derived from a multipotent cell in the bone marrow known as a...

s could engulf and destroy harmful bodies such as bacteria, met with scepticism from leading specialists including Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur was a French chemist and microbiologist born in Dole. He is remembered for his remarkable breakthroughs in the causes and preventions of diseases. His discoveries reduced mortality from puerperal fever, and he created the first vaccine for rabies and anthrax. His experiments...

, Behring
Emil Adolf von Behring
Emil Adolf von Behring was a German physiologist who received the 1901 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the first one so awarded.-Biography:...

 and others. At the time most bacteriologists believed that white blood cells ingested pathogens and then spread them further through the body.

Mechnikov returned to Odesa as director of an institute set up to carry out Pasteur's vaccine
A vaccine is a biological preparation that improves immunity to a particular disease. A vaccine typically contains an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism, and is often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe or its toxins...

 against rabies
Rabies is a viral disease that causes acute encephalitis in warm-blooded animals. It is zoonotic , most commonly by a bite from an infected animal. For a human, rabies is almost invariably fatal if post-exposure prophylaxis is not administered prior to the onset of severe symptoms...

, but due to some difficulties left in 1888 and went to Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 to seek Pasteur's advice. Pasteur gave him an appointment at the Pasteur Institute
Pasteur Institute
The Pasteur Institute is a French non-profit private foundation dedicated to the study of biology, micro-organisms, diseases, and vaccines. It is named after Louis Pasteur, who made some of the greatest breakthroughs in modern medicine at the time, including pasteurization and vaccines for anthrax...

, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Mechnikov's work on phagocytes won him the Nobel Prize in 1908. He worked with Émile Roux
Pierre Paul Émile Roux
Pierre Paul Émile Roux FRS was a French physician, bacteriologist and immunologist who was one of the closest collaborators of Louis Pasteur , a co-founder of the Pasteur Institute and discoverer of the anti-diphtheria serum, the first effective therapy for this disease.Roux got his baccalaureate...

 on calomel, an ointment to prevent people from contracting syphilis
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum. The primary route of transmission is through sexual contact; however, it may also be transmitted from mother to fetus during pregnancy or at birth, resulting in congenital syphilis...

, a sexually transmitted disease
Sexually transmitted disease
Sexually transmitted disease , also known as a sexually transmitted infection or venereal disease , is an illness that has a significant probability of transmission between humans by means of human sexual behavior, including vaginal intercourse, oral sex, and anal sex...


Mechnikov also developed a theory that aging
Senescence or biological aging is the change in the biology of an organism as it ages after its maturity. Such changes range from those affecting its cells and their function to those affecting the whole organism...

 is caused by toxic bacteria in the gut and that lactic acid
Lactic acid
Lactic acid, also known as milk acid, is a chemical compound that plays a role in various biochemical processes and was first isolated in 1780 by the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Lactic acid is a carboxylic acid with the chemical formula C3H6O3...

 could prolong life. Based on this theory, he drank sour milk every day. He wrote three books: Immunity in Infectious Diseases, The Nature of Man, and The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies, the last of which, along with Metchnikoff's studies into the potential life-lengthening properties of lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus), inspired Japanese scientist Minoru Shirota
Minoru Shirota
was the inventor of Yakult, the yogurt-like probiotic drink containing Lactobacillus casei strain shirota.In 1930, Dr. Minoru Shirota, working in a microbiology lab at Kyoto Imperial University's School of Medicine, became the first in the world to succeed in culturing a strain of lactic acid...

 to begin investigating the causal relationship between bacteria and good intestinal health, which eventually led to the worldwide marketing of Kefir
Kefir is a fermented milk drink that originated with shepherds of the North Caucasus region, who discovered that fresh milk carried in leather pouches would occasionally ferment into an effervescent beverage...

 and other fermented
Fermentation (food)
Fermentation in food processing typically is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. Fermentation in simple terms is the chemical conversion of sugars into ethanol...

Milk is a white liquid produced by the mammary glands of mammals. It is the primary source of nutrition for young mammals before they are able to digest other types of food. Early-lactation milk contains colostrum, which carries the mother's antibodies to the baby and can reduce the risk of many...

 drinks, or probiotics.

Personal life

Mechnikov was married to his first wife Ludmila Feodorovitch in 1863. She died from tuberculosis
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

 on 20 April 1873. Her death, combined with other problems, caused Mechnikov to unsuccessfully attempt suicide, taking a large dose of opium
Opium is the dried latex obtained from the opium poppy . Opium contains up to 12% morphine, an alkaloid, which is frequently processed chemically to produce heroin for the illegal drug trade. The latex also includes codeine and non-narcotic alkaloids such as papaverine, thebaine and noscapine...

. He married again in 1875, to Olga Belokopytova who died in 1944 in Paris from typhoid. Mechnikov died in 1916 in Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 from heart failure.

Further reading

  • Microbe Hunters, by Paul De Kruif (1926)
  • Deutsch, Ronald M. The Nuts Among the Berries. New York, Ballantine Books, rev. ed. 1967

External links

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