Magazine article Russian Life

Ilya Mechnikov: Scientist from Birth

Magazine article Russian Life

Ilya Mechnikov: Scientist from Birth

Article excerpt

If it could be said that someone is a scientist from birth, this ought to be said of Ilya Mechnikov, the embryologist, bacteriologist and immunologist. In 1908, nearly at the end of his life, he became the second Russian to be awarded the Nobel Prize (Ivan Pavlov was the first).

Born on May 15, 1845, in the Ukrainian village of Ivanovka, Mechnikov was the youngest in a family of five children. His parents were a strange couple. His father Ilya, before moving to Ivanovka, had served as an officer in St. Petersburg's Emperor's Guards, and he gambled away most of his wife's dowry and their family belongings. Mechnikov's mother, Emilia Nevakhovich, the daughter of the rich Jewish writer Lev Nevakhovich, always supported her youngest son's desire to become a scientist. As a child, young Ilya would often lecture his siblings on the natural sciences, and an article he wrote at 16, criticizing his geology textbook, was published in a Moscow magazine.

Mechnikov was such an industrious student, that he graduated from Kharkov University--where he studied physics and mathematics--in two years instead of the usual four. At 25, he became the university's youngest professor. A firm supporter of Darwin's theory of evolution, Mechnikov's first discovery was based on that theory, concluding that the anatomy of highly-organized animals had much in common with the anatomy of less-organized animals (e.g. worms and simple invertebrates), from whom they had descended.

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Together with the scientist Alexander Kovalevsky, Mechnikov studied evolutionary embryology for three years and in 1867 earned his doctorate with a dissertation on the embryonic development of fish and crawfish. Mechnikov then taught zoology and comparative anatomy at St. Petersburg University for six years, before moving to Odessa, which was an ideal place for examining sea animals. Mechnikov was popular among Odessa students. However, he was weighed down by personal problems and depressed by the increasing social and political disturbances in Russia. After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the Government's reactionary activities were intensified, and Mechnikov decided in 1882 to move to Messina, Italy.

As Mechnikov wrote later, Messina brought a sudden change in his scientific research: the zoologist became a pathologist. While observing starfish larvae, Mechnikov noticed that mobile cells surrounded and absorbed alien cells. Mechnikov started to search for the same protective forces in the human body and found out that the mechanism was similar to the inflammatory process that resulted when pathogenic microbes invaded the bloodstream. …

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