Elie Metchnikoff

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Metchnikoff, Élie

(ālē` mĕch`nĭkôf), 1845–1916, Russian biologist. He studied in Russia and Germany, lectured at the Univ. of Odessa, and, after working with Pasteur in Paris, became (1904) deputy director of the Pasteur Institute there. He introduced the theory of phagocytosis, i.e., that certain white blood cells are able to engulf and destroy harmful substances such as bacteria. For his work on immunity he shared with Paul Ehrlich the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He developed a theory that lactic-acid bacteria (B. acidophilus) in the digestive tract could, by preventing putrefaction, prolong life; and with P. P. É. Roux he experimented with calomel ointment as a treatment for syphilis. His writings include Immunity in Infectious Diseases (1905) and The Nature of Man (1938).


See biography by O. Metchnikova (1921).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Metchnikoff, Élie


(Il’ya Il’ich Mechnikov). Born May 3 (15), 1845, in Ivanovka, in present-day Kupiansk Raion, Kharkov Oblast; died July 2(15), 1916, in Paris. Russian biologist and pathologist; one of the founders of evolutionary embryology and creator of comparative inflammation pathology and the phagocytic theory of immunity. Honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1902).

Metchnikoff graduated from the University of Kharkov in 1864. He took his specialization in Germany with K. R. Leuckart and C. von Siebold and studied invertebrate embryology in Italy. He defended his master’s dissertation in 1867 and his doctoral dissertation in 1868 at the University of St. Petersburg. He was a professor at the University of Novorossiia in Odessa from 1870 to 1882. Resigning in protest against the reactionary education policies of the tsarist government and right-wing professors, he organized a private laboratory in Odessa. In 1886, with N. F. Gamaleia, he organized the first Russian bacteriological station for the control of infectious diseases.

In 1888, Metchnikoff left Russia for Paris, where he was given a laboratory at the institute founded by L. Pasteur. In 1905 he became assistant director of the institute. Although he lived in Paris until the end of his life, Metchnikoff never severed his ties with Russia. He corresponded regularly with K. A. Timiriazev, I. M. Sechenov, I. P. Pavlov, N. A. Umov, and D. I. Mendeleev, and many Russian scientists took their specialization and worked in his laboratory. In addition, he visited Russia a number of times.

Metchnikoff s scientific work deals with a number of areas in biology and medicine. From 1866 to 1886 he worked on problems of comparative and evolutionary embryology; with A. O. Kovalevskii, he was one of the founders of that school. He proposed the phagocyte theory, an original theory for the origin of multicellular animals. His discovery of the phenomenon of phagocytosis in 1882 (outlined in a report in 1883 to the Seventh Congress of Russian Naturalists and Physicians in Odessa) became the basis for his development of comparative inflammation pathology (1892) and for his phagocytic theory of immunity (Immunity to Infectious Diseases, 1901; Nobel Prize, 1908, with P. Ehrlich). Metchnikoff s numerous works on bacteriology are devoted to the epidemiology of cholera, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases. In 1903, with E. Roux, he was the first to produce syphilis experimentally in monkeys.

Problems of aging occupy a significant place in Metchnikoff s work. He believed that, in man, old age and death occur prematurely as a result of autointoxication by microbes and poisons. He attributed the greatest significance, in this connection, to intestinal flora. On the basis of these ideas, Metchnikoff proposed a number of prophylactic and hygienic means of controlling autointoxication, such as sterilizing food, limiting the amount of meat in the diet, and using fermented milk products. In his view, the goal of the struggle against premature aging was “orthobiosis,” the attainment of a “full and happy life cycle, ending in a calm and natural death” (The Nature of Man, 1904; Studies on Optimism, 1907).

Metchnikoff touched on many general theoretical and philosophical problems in a number of his works. In early works devoted to problems of Darwinism (for example, Essay on the Problem of the Origin of Species, 1876), he expressed a number of ideas that anticipated the modern concept of certain problems of evolution.

Numbering himself among the advocates of “rationalism” (Forty Years’ Search for a Rational World-View, 1913), Metchnikoff criticized religious, mystical, and idealist points of view. On social and political questions, he was a consistent foe of the obscurantism and despotism of the tsarist regime. He attributed the primary role in human progress to science.

Metchnikoff created the first Russian school of microbiologists, immunologists, and pathologists, and he was active in creating research institutions that worked on various forms of the struggle against infectious diseases. A number of bacteriological and immunological institutes in the USSR bear his name. Metchnikoff was an honorary member of many foreign academies of science, scientific societies, and institutes.


Stranitsy vospominanii. Moscow, 1946.
Izbrannye biologicheskie proizvedeniia. Moscow, 1950.
Izbr. proizv. Moscow, 1956.
Akademicheskoe sobranie sochinenii, vols. 1–16. Moscow, 1950–64.


Mechnikova, O. N. Zhizn’ I. I. Mechnikova. Moscow-Leningrad, 1926.
Khizhniakov, V. V., G. M. Vaindrakh, and N. V. Khizhniakova. Tvorchestvo Mechnikova i literatura o nem. Moscow, 1951. (Bibliography.)
Zalkind, S. la. Il’ia Il’ich Mechnikov: Zhizn’ i tvorcheskii put’ Moscow, 1957.
Mogilevskii, B. Il’ia Il’ich Mechnikov. Moscow, 1958.
Reznik, S. E. Mechnikov. Moscow, 1973.
Zeiss, H. Elias Metschnikow: Leben und Werk. Jena, 1932.
Lepine, P. Élie Metchnikoff. Paris, 1966.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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