Elie Metchnikoff Biography (1845-1916)


An important early researcher in immunology, Elie Metchnikoff was born in Kharkov, Russia, on May 16, 1845. His father was an officer of the Imperial Guard. His mother was the daughter of a Jewish writer, and she encouraged her son's interest in natural sciences. After graduating from the University of Kharkov in 1864, Metchnikoff continued his studies in Germany, then returned to Russia and earned his Ph.D. from the University of St. Petersburg in 1867. Metchnikoff's early career was difficult. His first faculty positions, at the University of Odessa beginning in 1862 and at St. Petersburg in 1868, were marred by difficult working conditions and severe eyestrain. After his first wifedied in 1873, Metchnikoff attempted suicide. Thanks to a happy and financially successful second marriage, Metchnikoff became financially independent andmoved to Messina, Italy, in 1882 to devote himself to research. There, he made his great discovery.

In 1865, Metchnikoff had studied roundworms for the purpose of observing intracellular digestion. In Messina, he studied transparent starfish larvae and observed a similar process, whereby mobile cells surrounded and engulfed invading foreign particles. He called these bacteria-eating cells phagocytes and devoted the next twenty-five years of his life to developing and promoting hisconcept of phagocytosis. Continuing his research, he showed that white bloodcorpuscles in higher animals and humans are also phagocytes. Metchnikoff first published his ideas about phagocytes in 1883 and wrote a comprehensive book on immunity in 1901. This new concept met with serious objections: first, because it contradicted the prevalent idea that white blood cells aided ratherthan attacked bacteria, and second, because it seemed to conflict with findings that antibody substances in the blood were responsible for immune responses. Metchnikoff worked, wrote, and spoke vigorously in support of his ideas,which became accepted as a component of the immune system in the early 1900s.He shared the 1908 Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology with Paul Ehrlichfor his work on white blood corpuscles.

Metchnikoff returned to Russia to head Odessa's Bacteriological Institute from 1886-1887. After his work came to the attention of Louis Pasteur, Metchnikoff settled in Paris in 1888 as a member and then director of the Pasteur Institute. Late in his life, he became interested in longevity, which he linked to bacteria in the intestinal tract. He believed that regularly ingesting lactic-acid bacilli--found in sour milk and yogurt--would increase a person's life span. Metchnikoff died in Paris of cardiac failure on July 16, 1916.

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