Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov was born on May 16, 1845, in a village near Kharkoff in Russia. He studied natural sciences at the University of Kharkoff, finishing his degree in just 2 years. His graduate studies were all over the map: marine fauna at Heligoland; digestion in flatworms at the University of Giessen and on to the University of Göttingen and the Munich Academy.
At age 25, he became a professor at the University of Odessa, back in Russia.
But life did not proceed merrily on this college campus. His first wife died of tuberculosis (she had been carried in a chair to their wedding 5 years before) and Mechnikov tried to join her by downing a large dose of opium. He lived to marry again, a young student named Olga who contracted typhoid fever. Despondent, Mechnikov fed relapsing fever to his own veins to see if it would spread. His suicide may as well teach the world something.
He did not die.
Politics—government, not academic gossip– hastened his exit from his university post and he set up a private lab.
Here, Mechnikov discovered phagocytosis, a concept which reversed the common thinking among scientists that white blood cells ate pathogens and spread the toxins around the body. Instead, phagocytosis meant that cells could defuse the pathogen.
The Nobel prize online site reports the following:
“This discovery was made when Mechnikov observed, in the larvae of starfishes, mobile cells which might, he thought, serve as part of the defences of these organisms and, to test this idea, he introduced into them small thorns from a tangerine tree which had been prepared as a Christmas tree for his children. Next morning he found the thorns surrounded by the mobile cells, and, knowing that, when inflammation occurs in animals which have a blood vascular system, leucocytes escape from their blood vessels, it occurred to him that these leucocytes might take up and digest bacteria that get into the body.”
Immunology was born. Mechnikov as well was reborn, eager to plumb the richness of his science. A period of inquiry backed his theory. Along the way, he worked on rabies vaccines with Luis Pasteur who lured him to Paris.
In Paris at the Pasteur Institute, Mechnikov worked to understand immunity and inflammation. In 1908 he was awarded a Nobel Prize along with his colleague Paul Ehrlich for accomplishments in that area.
As a young man, Mechnikov had marveled at the old men and women who lived long lives despite a hard life in the Bulgarian mountains. He imagined that fermented foods like yogurt produced helpful substances, a theory he could now test in the laboratory. Mechnikov and his colleagues were so convinced that they began drinking sour milk, thereby introducing the modern probiotic, which means “for life”. Thought to have coined the term “gerontology”, Mechnikov theorized that lactic acid bacteria could prolong life, a belief which led to his publication titled The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies. It is available here thanks to Google which digitalized it from the library of Harvard University.
Mechnikov died on July 16, 1916, presumably of heart failure. He wasn’t old-old but he lived a considerable time considering that he survived a few close calls earlier in life. Thanks to his brilliance and curiosity, immunology is today a central tenet of all medicine.
And soured milk, he would be pleased to know, is wildly popular, especially among the young hipsters on the planet.