Immunity: How Elie Metchnikoff Changed the Course of Modern Medicine

Immunity: How Elie Metchnikoff Changed the Course of Modern Medicine

by Luba Vikhanski


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Around Christmas of 1882, while peering through a microscope at starfish larvae in which he had inserted tiny thorns, Russian zoologist Elie Metchnikoff had a brilliant insight: what if the mobile cells he saw gathering around the thorns were nothing but a healing force in action? Metchnikoff’s daring theory of immunity—that voracious cells he called phagocytes formed the first line of defense against invading bacteria—would eventually earn the scientist a Nobel Prize, shared with his archrival, as well as the unofficial moniker “Father of Natural Immunity.” But first he had to win over skeptics, especially those who called his theory “an oriental fairy tale.”

Using previously inaccessible archival materials, author Luba Vikhanski chronicles Metchnikoff’s remarkable life and discoveries in the first moder n biography of this hero of medicine. Metchnikoff was a towering figure in the scientific community of the early twentieth century, a tireless humanitarian who, while working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, also strived to curb the spread of cholera, syphilis, and other deadly diseases. In his later years, he startled the world with controversial theories on longevity, launching a global craze for yogurt, and pioneered research into gut microbes and aging. Though Metchnikoff was largely forgotten for nearly a hundred years, Vikhanski documents a remarkable revival of interest in his ideas on immunity and on the gut flora in the science of the twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613731109
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 631,278
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Luba Vikhanski is an awardwinning author with twenty-five years of experience as a science journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Nature Medicine, and the Jerusalem Post. She has written two books: A Well-Informed Patient’s Guide to Breast Surgery and In Search of the Lost Cord: Solving the Mystery of Spinal Cord Regeneration.

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How Elie Metchnikoff Changed the Course of Modern Medicine

By Luba Vikhanski

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Luba Vikhanski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-113-0



On July 15, 1916, THE WEATHER in Paris was overcast and oppressively humid. Bleak light poured through the metal-framed windows of Louis Pasteur's former apartment upon gold-patterned wallpaper, oriental rugs, and carved antique furniture. The museum-like residence at the Pasteur Institute was filled with oil paintings, vases, statuettes, and other works of art Pasteur had received as gifts from grateful admirers. As Elie Metchnikoff lay in this shrine of science, pillows propping his large head with its mane of gray hair and beard, he held the hand of his wife Olga, fifty-seven, a slim, oval-faced blonde sitting at his bedside. He had devoted his entire life to science. Now science was letting him down.

Metchnikoff knew he was dying, but his worst fear was not death itself. What he dreaded most was that his passing away at seventy-one, decades too early by his own standards, would discredit his theories about life, health, and longevity.

He had been much better at creating new areas of research than at fitting into existing ones. The 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine had been his reward for helping found the modern science of immunity. He had then launched the first systematic study of aging, coining the term gerontology. In future generations, he argued, people could live to 150. To stay healthy, he believed they had to repopulate their intestines with beneficial microbes to replace harmful ones — for instance, by eating yogurt or other forms of sour milk.

Coming from such an acclaimed scientist, these ideas had created a sensation, making him an international celebrity and turning sour milk into a global mania. In a 1911 poll by a British magazine, he had been voted one of the ten greatest men in the world. But now that his heart was failing him less than halfway to his own target, his teachings threatened to die with him.

"Remember your promise — you'll perform my autopsy," he told an Italian physician who entered the room, one of his numerous trainees at the Pasteur Institute, where Metchnikoff had worked for nearly three decades. "And pay attention to my intestines, I think there's something there." Even after his death, he hoped to be doing what he had done all his life: serving as his own subject for research. When he made an abrupt movement, Olga pleaded with him to lie still. He didn't answer; his head had fallen back on the pillow.

The tricolor national flag on the Pasteur Institute's facade was lowered to half-mast, draped in black.

Millions of people were dying in a world war that had been raging for nearly two years, but this particular death was major news around the globe. The international press was unanimous in praising Metchnikoff, placing him beside Pasteur, Lord Lister, and Robert Koch among "the immortals in the lifesaving science of bacteriology." But just as he had feared, his death delivered a fatal blow to his theories of longevity.

Soon afterward, his name sank into oblivion. Hardly anyone followed up on his research, neither in aging nor in immunity. Only the yogurt craze he had launched on both sides of the Atlantic proved immortal. Indeed, outside the Pasteur Institute, to the extent that he was remembered at all after his death — except by historically minded immunologists and a handful of life-extension enthusiasts — it was usually in connection with yogurt.

There was one exception. In his homeland, Ilya Ilyich Metchnikoff was not just remembered but revered, and not at all because of yogurt.

When I was a girl growing up in Moscow in the early 1970s, Metchnikoff was known as the Russian Pasteur and upheld as a shining example of national talent. In company with Russia's other historic heroes, he was a cult figure, glorified by the Soviet regime as a way of instilling in the population a sense of belonging to a great nation. In my ninth-grade textbook, the ideologically weighted History of the USSR, he was canonized as "a model of selfless service to the Fatherland and to science." Like all the children in Moscow's Secondary School No. 732, to say nothing of the rest of the fifty million or so schoolchildren in the Soviet Union, I learned that Metchnikoff's valiant struggles against "bourgeois ethos" had helped pave the way for "Leninism, the highest achievement of Russian and world culture in the imperialist era."

But like many children of dissidents (my family had long-standing scores to settle with the repressive Soviet regime), I loathed this hero worship. In fact, I secretly suspected that Metchnikoff was a fake, together with most other Russian greats in my textbook, their accomplishments primarily products of communist propaganda. When I left Russia for good at seventeen, I would have been quite happy never to hear about any of them again.

Thirty years passed. While working as a science writer in Israel in the mid-2000s, I received an e-mail from Leslie Brent, a distinguished professor of immunology in the United Kingdom. In a search I had undertaken for little-known but key episodes in the history of science, I had asked him to list great immunologists whose life stories, in his opinion, had yet to be properly told. Metchnikoff's name, high on Professor Brent's list, jumped out at me. It brought back memories of my teenage self with my braids, fountain pens, and brown wool high school uniform. I was shocked by my own myopia. Had I wrongly dismissed a genius in my overall rejection of the party line?

To clear up this possible error of judgment that had been trailing me since childhood, I decided to investigate. Who was this man? Was he really as great as my textbooks had proclaimed him to be?

Delving into accounts of Metchnikoff's life, I discovered a tale worthy of becoming a legend. It was the story of a boy who grew up in an obscure village, dreamed about creating a theory that would revolutionize medicine — and went on to author the modern concept of immunity as an inner curative power. Today we take it for granted that our immune system protects us from within; it is hard to imagine that just over a century ago, mainstream medicine had no notion of the body's inner defenses. Then one day in the early 1880s, Metchnikoff straightened his spectacles, peered into his microscope, and declared that he was watching a curative force in action.

He was an outsider — a zoologist, not a physician. His theory of immunity came under attack in Germany; a prominent French scientist dubbed it "an oriental fairy tale." How did Metchnikoff become one of the founding fathers of immunology? And how did it happen that a scientist who launched such a radical shift in human consciousness was so thoroughly forgotten outside Russia?

Searching for answers, I started out with the adoring biography by his wife Olga, Life of Elie Metchnikoff, as well as books and articles written about him in Russia. But I wanted to form my own opinion. I sought out Metchnikoff's memoirs and letters and those by his friends and foes. I followed his trail to Ukraine, riding for hours on a vintage bus to Mechnikovo, the pastoral village where he had grown up, which was renamed in his memory. At a library during a trip to Moscow, I scrolled through the May 1945 microfilm of Pravda, which reported on the celebrations of the centenary of his birth. From the State Archive of the Russian Federation, I obtained reports filed on him by the tsar's secret police.

My initial intent was to write a book about an unjustly forgotten scientist. Then something unexpected happened: Metchnikoff's luck, I realized, had suddenly changed. In the 2000s, during the years in which I was rediscovering him, world science was rediscovering him as well. His ideas are now making a surprising comeback. He fought to leave his mark on the science of the twentieth century; instead, he advanced the science of the twenty-first.

Shifting my quest from the past to the present, I sought to understand this unusual reversal of fortune. What is Metchnikoff's true legacy? Is his research helping to rid humanity of disease, as he had hoped? And what does modern science say about gut microbes and longevity?

Throughout my searches, I wondered whether Metchnikoff himself would have felt vindicated by his own remarkable revival. Would he conclude that the fears he had on his deathbed were unfounded? And would he see himself as a winner in his major quests? If so, what a sweet victory it would be, with a tinge of vinegar for having been so long in coming.

My motivation to write a book about Metchnikoff only grew in the wake of his renewed relevance, but I was missing a crucial source of information.



When passing through Paris in the fall of 2007, I looked for people who, in the distant past, might have heard firsthand stories about Metchnikoff. That was how I met Professor Elie Wollman, who had actually known Olga Metchnikoff. This encounter was to launch me on a Holmesian investigation that took an unexpected direction.

Wollman's father, Eugène, had been one of the last of Metchnikoff's students at the Pasteur Institute. Eugène gave his son, born after Metchnikoff's death, Metchnikoff's first name. The younger Wollman subsequently spent his entire career at the Pasteur Institute, where he made groundbreaking discoveries in microbial genetics and, like Metchnikoff, served as the institute's deputy director. Witty, vigorous, and sharp, Wollman (ninety years old at the time of our meeting) affectionately shared his memories of the widowed Olga, a family friend, who lived till 1944. I concentrated on every word. This was the closest I was going to get to someone who knew Metchnikoff.

"Olga was very beautiful, very fine. She possessed a great innocence," recalled Wollman — speaking French, he used the word candeur, which could also mean "ingenuousness" or "purity." "She kept the spirit of a young girl all her life; even her voice was girlish. I never heard her say anything unpleasant or nasty about anyone."

Olga's candeur evidently included relentless naïveté, a trait she shared with her husband. During World War II, when the Nazis were arresting Jews throughout occupied Paris, Wollman's parents went into hiding at the Pasteur Institute hospital, disguised as patients. In 1943, however, they were denounced and sent to a concentration camp.

"You know, in a way, I'm relieved. Your mother has been so tired lately, at least in the camp she'll be able to rest," Olga consoled the young Wollman with shocking blindness.

Both Eugène and Elisabeth Wollman died in Auschwitz.

As I was about to leave Wollman's elegant apartment, pausing to admire a pensive landscape painting by Olga in the living room, he dropped a clue: "Find out more about Lili Rémy." The name was familiar. Metchnikoff had served as Lili's godfather, as he had for the children of numerous other friends and colleagues. Lili was the daughter of Émile Rémy, the Pasteur Institute's scientific illustrator.

Something about the way Wollman mentioned Lili made me heed his advice. From other people versed in the institute's unofficial history, I learned that Lili had been "widely regarded" as Metchnikoff's out-of-wedlock daughter, or what the French call un enfant naturel, an expression hinting at tacit social acceptance.

I also learned that Lili had already died, but that her only son, Jacques Saada, had stayed in touch with the Pasteur Institute for a while, attending ceremonies and memorial events. Apparently unaware that his mother's alleged lineage was an open secret among Pasteur old-timers, he shrouded it in self-indulgent mystery. "He told it to you like a secret he hoped would not be kept," recalled a one-time staff member.

When I returned to Israel from Paris, finding Metchnikoff's only potential descendant — the son of his supposed love child — became imperative. Since Jacques Saada no longer lived at the address in the suburban town of Ville d'Avray that I had been given, I embarked on an inquiry. I called his former neighbors, officials in the Ville d'Avray municipality, and local real estate agents who might have sold his apartment. I even contacted lawyers in the neighborhood on the odd chance they knew him, since on the Pasteur Institute mailing list, Saada appeared as Maître, a French title for people in the legal profession.

Alas, I learned from Saada's former concierge that he had died several years earlier, but I kept searching. Perhaps I could contact his children? The prospect of finding Metchnikoff's direct descendants fired my imagination.

Finally, after months of long-distance phone calls and fruitless web surfing, I had a hit: I found Saada's name among the condolences in a 2003 issue of the online newsletter Le Sévrien. I obtained Saada's death certificate, which gave me the name of the person who reported his death: Dr. Patrice Rambert. Before I could finish introducing myself on the phone, Rambert exclaimed, "You must be calling about the Metchnikoff collection!"

I was dumbfounded: what collection? It sounded like a mystery plot, yet it was real. Metchnikoff's numerous objects and letters, Rambert told me, were locked up in a bank, on the Champs-Elysées of all places, and no one could take them out.

It turned out that before Saada died in 2003, he had placed his Metchnikoff collection in four safe deposit boxes at the Crédit Lyonnais bank on the Champs-Elysées. Under French law, anyone claiming a right to Saada's belongings would automatically inherit not only Metchnikoff's affairs but also all of Saada's debts, of which he had many. Understandably, there were no takers. The collection was stuck in a legal limbo.

Having tracked down Saada's inheritance, I couldn't take my mind off the hidden treasure in the vault. For a while, I felt like the obsessed narrator of Henry James's The Aspern Papers. I tried to devise strategies to gain access to the dozens of letters and documents unknown to science historians, but it all seemed to no avail. Even making copies of the documents was impossible. French law is draconian when it comes to protecting private property, though in this instance it was unclear exactly whose property was being protected.

At times, I wondered if it was all worth it. The hidden letters promised to shed light on Metchnikoff's faith in "family values" — his belief that one day, thanks to science, all family life would be a perfectly harmonious affair. But as much as I hoped to find his love letters, I also dreaded uncovering evidence of his being unfaithful to Olga. By then, I had come to feel a special bond with her in the process of delving deeply into her and her husband's lives. And I owed her a huge debt of gratitude for her biography of Metchnikoff and for having collected the material now in the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences, without which the work on my own book would have been unthinkable.

Then I had a stroke of luck. As part of my searches for people who had known Saada, I had found a friend of his, the caring Parisian lawyer Joseph Haddad, who had helped Saada out during his poverty-stricken years. The charming and savvy Maître Haddad took on the case as a personal challenge. But neither my biographical investigation nor the Pasteur Institute's interest in Metchnikoff's documents could supply a legal argument for opening the safes. Months went by. I worried that Metchnikoff's papers might vanish just as Aspern's had, should the bank decide to empty out the safes for which it was no longer receiving rent.


Excerpted from Immunity by Luba Vikhanski. Copyright © 2016 Luba Vikhanski. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


A Note About Names,
I - My Metchnikoff,
1 - Reversal of Fortune,
2 - The Paris Obsession,
II - The Messina "Epiphany",
3 - Eureka!,
4 - A Boy in a Hurry,
5 - Science and Marriage,
6 - A Person of Extreme Convictions,
7 - The True Story,
8 - An Outsider's Advantage,
9 - Eating Cells,
10 - Curative Digestion,
11 - The Pasteur Boom,
12 - An Oriental Fairy Tale,
13 - A Fateful Detour,
14 - Farewell,
III - The Immunity War,
15 - The Temple on Rue Dutot,
16 - Engine in the Dark,
17 - An Amazing Friend,
18 - Verdict,
19 - The Soul of Inflammation,
20 - Under the Sword of Damocles,
21 - Law of Life,
22 - Building a Better Castle,
23 - The Demon of Science,
24 - Kicking Against the Goads,
25 - A Romantic Chapter,
IV - Not by Yogurt Alone,
26 - Haunted,
27 - Vive la Vie!,
28 - Law of Longevity,
29 - The Nature of Man,
30 - Papa Boiled,
31 - The Butter-Milk Craze,
32 - A True Malady,
33 - Absurd Prejudice,
34 - Return of a Psychosis,
35 - Biological Romances,
36 - Mais C'est Metchnikoff!,
37 - Triumphant Tour,
38 - Two Monarchs,
39 - A Metchnikoff Cow,
40 - Rational Worldview,
41 - The Last War,
42 - A True Benefactor,
43 - Olga's Crime,
44 - Vanishing,
V - Legacy,
45 - Metchnikoff's Life,
46 - Metchnikoff's Policemen,
47 - Ultimate Closure,
48 - Living to 150,

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