Life of Elie Metchnikoff, 1845-1916

Life of Elie Metchnikoff, 1845-1916

Olga Metchnikoff
Olga Metchnikoff

Author: Metchnikoff, Olga
Life of Elie Metchnikoff, 1845-1916


It has been a great satisfaction to me to carry out the wish of my dear friend Elie Metchnikoff, and arrange for the production of an English translation of his biography. The account of his life and work written by Olga Metchnikoff is a remarkable and beautiful record of the development and activities of a great discoverer. It is remarkable because it is seldom that one who undertakes such a task has had so constant a share in, and so complete a knowledge and understanding of, the life portrayed as in the present case: seldom that the intimate thought and mental “adventure” of a discoverer presents so clear and consistent a history. It is beautiful because it is put before us with perfect candour and simplicity guided by rare intelligence and inspired by deep affection. Madame Metchnikoff has drawn the picture of the development of a single-minded character absolutely and tenaciously devoted to a high purpose—the improvement of human life. It is a story of “struggles and adventures,” but they are wholly in the field of the investigation of Nature. We read here little or nothing of the quest for personal advancement, for fortune or official position. These things had no attraction for Metchnikoff. He left Russia and took an unpaid post in Paris in order to have a place to work in. He had many devoted friends in whose company he sought refreshment and relaxation, but all his immense energy and industry were concentrated on the development and establishment of his great biological theory of “Phagocytosis” and its outcome, the philosophy of life called by him “Orthobiosis.” This volume tells truly of a simple life—a life in which the social incidents which fill so large a space in most lives were either non-existent or unnoticed because, by the side of the great purpose which dominated Metchnikoff’s every thought and action—namely, the advancement of Science—he was not touched by them. He was affectionate, kind-hearted, and truly considerate of others, but was, in a way which is traceable to his racial origin, a practical idealist concentrating his whole strength and reason on the realisation of what he held to be the highest good.

I had as an eager reader of memoirs on biological subjects become acquainted with Metchnikoff’s earliest publications in 1865, when he was twenty years of age and I two years younger. I wrote short accounts of them, as they appeared, for a chronicle of progress in the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, then edited by my father. Those on a European Land Planarian, on the development of Myzostomum (the parasite of the Feather-Star), on Apsilus, a strange new kind of wheel-animalcule, and his protest against Rudolf Leuckart’s treatment of him in the matter of his important discoveries concerning the Frog’s lung-worm—Ascaris nigrovenosa—remain in my memory, and later, in 1872, I was especially struck by his important demonstration of the true mode of development of the gastrula of the calcareous sponges in correction of Professor Ernst Haeckel. Many other papers of his became known to me, until in 1881 he published his first observations on Intracellular Digestion in Lower Animals, which was the starting-point of his life’s work on “Phagocytosis,” to which all his subsequent researches—during thirty-five years—were exclusively dedicated.

In 1888 I was introduced by my friend Lauder Brunton to the great Pasteur, and called on him at his laboratory in the rue d’Ulm. There I met Metchnikoff, only lately arrived from Russia, and welcomed as one of his staff by Pasteur. The next year, 1889, Pasteur was installed in the new “Institut Pasteur” in the rue Dutot, and I met Metchnikoff there in his new quarters. Pasteur’s assistants were carrying on daily his system of inoculation against rabies, and many British subjects were amongst those treated. I persuaded the Lord Mayor of that year, Sir James Whitehead, to visit the Pasteur Institute with a view to taking steps to make some recognition of the services rendered by Pasteur to our fellow-countrymen in treating over two hundred of them threatened with hydrophobia. Sir James called a meeting on July 1, 1889, at the Mansion House, and placed the management of it in my hands. As a result we obtained subscriptions to a fund which enabled us to assist many poor British subjects to visit Paris for the purpose of undergoing M. Pasteur’s treatment, to make a donation of 30,000 francs to the Pasteur Institute, and to initiate with a sum of £300 the formation of a fund for the purpose of establishing an Institute in London similar in purpose and character to the Institut Pasteur. That initial fund has step by step received generous additions and given us the “Lister Institute” on Chelsea Embankment possessed of buildings, site, and capital valued at more than £300,000.

After 1889 it was rare for a year to pass without my visiting Paris both in spring and summer, and seeing a great deal of Metchnikoff and his friends Roux, Duclaux, Laveran, and the great master of the Pastorians, who died in 1895. Metchnikoff took me to his home and cemented his friendship with me by bringing to me that of his gifted and devoted wife.

Madame Metchnikoff had when a schoolgirl studied zoology under her future husband at Odessa, and now was able to give serious help in some of his researches. She published some experimental investigation on the sterilisation of the alimentary canal of tadpoles and some other researches, and having a thorough knowledge of English, which Elie did not possess, she helped him in reading and translating from that language. But her chief talents were in the arts of painting and sculpture, and when they purchased their country house at Sèvres, she built a studio in the garden in which to pursue her vocation.

Metchnikoff on several occasions came to England to take part in “congresses” or to give special addresses, and often stayed a day or two with me in London.[1] I was with him at the Darwin Celebration at Cambridge in 1909, and the last occasion when he came was to give the Priestley Lecture of the National Health Society in November 1912. At my request he selected “The Warfare against Tuberculosis” as his subject, and gave a most valuable account of the history and actual condition of that enterprise, relating the important results of his expedition to the Kalmuk Tartars for the purpose of studying the immunity from and the liability to infection by tuberculosis among that nomad population. The lecture was delivered in French, and I made a translation of it which appeared with numerous illustrations in the journal called Bedrock, published by Constable & Co. I mention that publication here as it is the only one excepting the three lectures on “The New Hygiene” (Heinemann, London, 1906) originally published in an English form by Metchnikoff, and deserves more attention from the English medical public than it has received.

I found Metchnikoff a delightful companion. He always had something new or of special interest to show to me at the laboratory—some microscopical preparation, the digestive process in Protozoa, the microbian parasite of a water-flea, a new method of dark ground illumination with high powers (Commandant’s method for film production), the newly discovered Treponema of syphilis, or the experimental inoculation of a disease under study. Sometimes I would lunch at his house, when, although he neither smoked nor took alcoholic drinks himself, he made a point of giving me first-rate claret and a good cigar. It was about the year 1900 that he arranged for the preparation of a pure “sour milk” made by the use of a special lactic ferment (selected and cultivated by himself), and this he took regularly. I found it a most agreeable food, and for several years made it an article of my own diet. He was very careful about the possible contamination of uncooked food by bacteria and the eggs of parasitic worms, and in consequence had “rolls” sent to him from the bakers each in its separate paper bag, whilst he would never eat uncooked salads or fruit which could not be rendered safe by “peeling.” This was not an excess of caution, but resulted from his characteristic determination to carry out in practice the directions given by definite scientific knowledge, and to make the attempt to lead so far as possible a life free from disease. Often when I arrived in Paris he would invite me to lunch at one of the leading cafés, and though he ate very simple food himself took keen pleasure in ordering the best for me and thoroughly enjoyed the change of scene and the amenities of a first-rate restaurant. During one of his visits to London, I remember that he was invited, and I with him, on two or three occasions, by leading London physicians to dinner-parties. He was greatly shocked at the amount of strong wine which his hosts and fellow-guests consumed, and assured me that in Paris it would be injurious to the reputation of a physician were he not to set an example of either abstinence or great moderation.

Metchnikoff was not only exceedingly gentle and courteous in his treatment of servants and employés, but he and his wife contrived on a very small income to help in a most substantial way poor neighbours and those who had met with misfortune whether they were of French or Russian nationality. They had many friends in the world of science and art, real workers and thinkers, including those who had not and those who had “arrived.” With them I met and spent a long and interesting day with Rodin the sculptor and the son of Léon Tolstoï, who was working in a Paris studio. Among the pleasures which I have derived from the Life are the accounts of places such as Naples and Messina, where I stayed in order to study the embryology of marine animals as Metchnikoff did; and also the appearance in these pages from time to time of old friends such as Nikolas Kleinenberg, whom Metchnikoff met at Messina in 1883. I had formed an intimate acquaintance with Kleinenberg at Jena in 1871, when he was working at his classical monograph on Hydra, and continued it at Naples in 1875. From Messina, where he became Professor in 1875, Kleinenberg sent me for publication in the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science his valuable memoir on the embryology of a species of Earthworm, and also rare and interesting specimens of Cephalopoda.

Another great and noteworthy figure about whom all zoologists are glad to learn as much as possible is Kovalevsky. Metchnikoff made his acquaintance at Naples in 1864, and they formed a close friendship for one another. Later, in 1867, they shared the Baer Prize of the Petersburg Academy for their discoveries in embryology (p. 58). In 1868 Metchnikoff had a dispute with Kovalevsky as to the origin of the nervous system of Ascidia (p. 62), concerning which he subsequently admitted that he was wrong and Kovalevsky right. There is no doubt that Kovalevsky, by his numerous important investigations of invertebrate embryology, and especially of that of Ascidia and Amphioxus, laid the foundation of cellular Embryology, and the modern study of the embryology of Invertebrates. Metchnikoff’s contributions were also of great value and importance (pp. 51, 52, 53, and pp. 72 and 73), though he has not so great a triumph in animal morphology to his credit as Kovalevsky’s discovery of the close identities of the development of organs in Ascidia and Amphioxus. I had long cherished profound esteem for Kovalevsky when in 1896 I met him and his daughter at Wimereux with Professor Giard. He came in the autumn of that year to London, but left unexpectedly owing to some nervous fear of annoyance by the police. The great position of Kovalevsky was deliberately ignored in a German history of Zoology,[2] published just before the Great War. Metchnikoff describes Kovalevsky as a young man, small and timid, with shy but cordial manners and the clear sweet eyes of a child: he had (like Metchnikoff) for Science an absolute cult—“no sacrifice was too great, no difficulty too repellent for his ardour.”

It is, I think, desirable to assure the reader of this book that the actual state of knowledge in regard to various subjects discussed in the Life at the time when they were made the subjects of study by Metchnikoff is fairly and correctly sketched, and the growth and development of his views and original discoveries are correctly given. But it must be remembered that this Life is not a critical discussion of the steps by which our knowledge of cell-layers, of intracellular digestion, and other factors contributory to Metchnikoff’s doctrine of Phagocytosis and its outcomes were reached. Others played an important if a subsidiary part in building up that knowledge. What we have here is an account of the growth of Metchnikoff’s own observations and theoretical inferences, which were so independent, and founded on such decisive original observations, as to make him a solitary figure contending, and successfully contending, during the best years of his lifetime for the recognition of a great generalisation for long opposed by most of the medical and physiological authorities of the time, and finally established by his lifelong researches and those of his faithful pupils and coadjutors. The recognition of the validity of the doctrine of phagocytosis in relation to wounds, disease, immunity, and normal healthy life is the triumphant result of the scientific insight and boundless energy of Elie Metchnikoff.




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Life of Elie Metchnikoff, 1845-1916
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1845. Panassovka — Metchnikoff’s parents — Country life in Little Russia 1
Metchnikoff’s brothers and sister — Childish characteristics 8
1850. Journey to Slaviansk — The coach attacked by peasants 12
1851. Departure for Kharkoff — Town life 16
1853-1856. Leo Metchnikoff’s illness — Private tutors — Botanical studies — A memorable birthday 19
Ancestors of the Metchnikoff family — The great “Spatar” — Leo Nevahovitch 23
1856-1861. The Kharkoff Lycée — Bogomoloff and Socialism — Atheism — Natural History studies — Private lodgings — Private lessons in histology from Professor Tschelkoff — A borrowed microscope — First article — Italian opera — The gold medal 28
An early love — A schoolfellow’s sister — A pretty sister-in-law 35
1862. Journey to Germany — Leipzig, Würzburg — A hasty return 37
1863. Kharkoff University — Physiology — The Vorticella — Controversy with Kühne — The Origin of Species — Gastrotricha — University degree 40
1864-1866. Heligoland — Giessen Congress — Leuckart — Visit to Leo Metchnikoff at Geneva — Socialist gatherings — Metchnikoff’s discovery appropriated by Leuckart — Naples — Kovalevsky — Comparative embryology — Embryonic layers — Bakounine and Setchénoff — Cholera at Naples — Göttingen — Anatomical studies — Munich; von Siebold — Music — Return to Naples — Intracellular digestion 43
1867-1868. Petersburg — Baer Prize — Return home — Friendship with Cienkovsky — Odessa — Naturalists’ Congress at Petersburg — Departure from Odessa — Zoological Lecturer’s Chair at Petersburg — Messina — Enforced rest — Reggio — Naples — Controversy with Kovalevsky — Visit to the B. family — Mlle. Fédorovitch — Educational questions — Difficulties of life in Petersburg 58
1868-1873. Slight illness — Engagement to Mlle. Fédorovitch — Marriage — Illness of the bride — Pecuniary difficulties — Spezzia — Montreux — Work in Petersburg University — The Riviera — Cœlomata and Acœlomata — St. Vaast — Panassovka — Madeira — Mertens — Teneriffe — Return to Odessa — Bad news, hurried journey to Madeira — Death of his wife (1872) — Return through Spain — Attempted suicide — Ephemeridæ 65
1874. Anthropological expedition to the Kalmuk steppes — Affection of the eyes — Second expedition to the steppes — The eggs of the Geophilus 82
1875. Studies on childhood — The family in the upper flat — Lessons in zoology — Second marriage — Private life — Visit and death of Lvovna Nevahovna — Conjugal affection 86
1875-1880. Metchnikoff at the age of 30 — Lecturing in Odessa University, from 1873 to 1882 — Internal difficulties — Assassination of the Tsar, Alexander II. — Further troubles in the University — Resignation — Bad health: cardiac symptoms — Relapsing fever — Choroiditis — Studies on Ephemeridæ — Further studies on intracellular digestion — The Parenchymella — Holidays in the country — Experiments on agricultural pests 96
1881-1882. Death of his father- and mother-in-law — Management of country estates — Agitation and difficulties — Departure for Messina with young brothers- and sisters-in-law 112
1883. Messina — Inception of the phagocyte theory — Encouragement from Virchow and Kleinenberg — First paper on phagocytosis at a Congress at Odessa in 1883 — The question of immunity — Article in Virchow’s Archiv, 1884 115
1884-1885. Ill-health of his wife and sister-in-law — Journey to Tangiers through Spain — Villefranche — Baumgarten criticises the phagocyte theory 123