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The Nobel prize in 1908 was awarded jointly to llya Metchinikoff and Paul Ehrlich in recognition of their work on immunity. Metchinikoff was one of the most eminent of Pasteur's pupils. He was not medically qualified but taught zoology at Odessa and St Petersburg and from 1873–82 was Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Odessa. He was an outspoken Darwinist and in the university's deteriorating political atmosphere at the time was labelled a “red”. The Tsar's assassination in 1881 unleashed the reactionaries and antisemites. Metchinikoff tried suicide, on this occasion for the second time by injecting himself with relapsing fever germs. Despite cardiac damage he recovered.
Metchinikoff's epochal discoveries occurred in late 1882 in Messina, Sicily when during his investigations of digestive processes of larval starfish he noticed that after introduction of a foreign body or bacteria into the body of a transparent starfish, a large number of cells soon surrounded the foreign particle, finally absorbing and dissolving it. He compared the process to the accumulation of white blood cells in human inflammation. This led him to formulate the doctrine of phagocytosis, the destruction of bacteria by white blood cells. He invented the term phagocyte (Gr Phaegin, to eat) to connect defence with digestion. The pathologist Virchow encouraged him but warned that biomedical opinion generally would be hostile.
Metchinikoff extended his theory by studying the role of phagocytosis in metamorphosis and then infectious disease. The fact that some infected animals succumbed while others survived raised the concept of immunity to infection.
In 1903 Metchinikoff succeeded with Emile Roux in transferring syphilis to apes and also made a preventive mercurous ointment. He also did research on cholera. His later years were largely concerned with the study of the aging factors in man. Methods of inducing longevity were discussed in The Nature of Man (1904) andThe Prolongation of Human Life (1910). He devoted much attention to the question of intestinal sepsis and to the possibility of prolonging life by the ingestion of lactic acid bacilli. To study and control senescence Metchinikoff proposed the establishment of a new scientific discipline he named gerontology. In 1938 the first Congress of Aging was convened in Kiev and in 1962 the USSR Institute of Gerontology was founded. Conferences in the United States in the 1930s led to the formation of the Gerontology Society (1945) and eventually to the National Institute of Aging (1974).
An urn containing Metchinikoff's ashes was placed in the library of the Pasteur Institute. He has been philatelically honoured by Russia but is shown here with a microscope and the Pasteur Institute on a French stamp issued in 1966 (Stanley Gibbons 1707, Scott B398).
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