phagocytosis -- 12/8/21

Today's selection -- from Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. Ilya Mechnikov was a dark and brooding figure. His first wife died of tuberculosis and his second suffered from typhus. After attempting suicide with morphine he went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

"No one was more familiar with the creative and destructive power of sickness than Ilya Mechnikov, a professor at Novorossiya Uni­versity and the city's foremost contributor to the science of infection. Mechnikov's Odessa years were the most turbulent of his long and eventful life. It was in a despondent decade in his adopted city that he first formulated the theories of infectious disease and cell behavior that became his life's work. ... In 1908 Mech­nikov received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (shared with the German researcher Paul Ehrlich) for his work on immu­nity, specifically the idea that some cells have the natural ability to destroy microbes. ...

"Ilya Mechnikov -- known after his move to Paris as Élie Metchnikoff -- was born in May 1845 on the estate of Panasovka in the province of Kharkov in eastern Ukraine. The family fold was modest but hospitably appointed, an oasis on the flat expanse of steppe that surrounded it. One side of the family was descended from a branch of Moldovan nobles who, fleeing the advancing Ottoman armies, had found refuge in the domain of Peter the Great. The other side, Mechnikov's maternal line, was Jewish. While he was studying at the local lycée, the loan of a microscope sparked his passion for scientific research. After earning a univer­sity degree at Kharkov and publishing regularly in biology journals, he settled down to an academic position at Novorossiya University in Odessa, where the sea breezes and the good Italian opera were major attractions.

Metchnikoff in his laboratory, 1913

"A researcher with a growing scientific reputation, Mechnikov traveled frequently to St. Petersburg, where he was thrown into the center of Russian scholarly life, as well as the social world of learned societies and the Russian Academy. Before long he was introduced to a young woman of good breeding, Lyudmila, whose chief virtue was her ability to assuage his natural melancholy. 'She is not bad­-looking, but that is all,' he wrote to his mother in Kharkov. '[E]ven though I have dark previsions for the future (as you know, I am not given to seeing life through rose-colored glasses), I cannot help thinking that by living with Lussia I should become calmer, at least for a fairly long time.' Closer to the truth was the fact that Mech­nikov found some diversion from his own dark introspection by caring for Lyudmila. Chronic bronchitis, probably the early stages of tuberculosis, struck her on their wedding day. She had to be car­ried to the church in a chair.

"Their new life together was mainly spent apart, he in St. Petersburg and Odessa, she in Switzerland and Portugal, hoping to find some relief for her fluid-filled lungs. In the winter of 1873, during a break between two of his lectures, he received a letter from his sister-in-law saying that Lyudmila was nearly gone and that if he wished to see her again, he should come as quickly as possible to Madeira, where she was convalescing in the archipelago off the Portuguese coast. By the time he arrived -- after a grueling journey across the breadth of Europe -- she was only a shell, bedridden and morphine-dazed. She lasted only a few days longer.

"On the return journey to Russia, his despair was obvious. He destroyed the scientific papers he had been working on. By the time he reached Geneva, he had downed a vial of morphine. He was saved by his own enthusiasm for death: the huge dose induced vom­iting, which expelled most of the drug before it could be absorbed.

"Surviving both his wife and his own botched suicide, Mechnikov redoubled his commitment to work. He took on new research proj­ects on evolution and adaptation. He organized an anthropological expedition among the steppe nomads of Kalmykia along the Cas­pian Sea. To earn extra income, he took on tutoring jobs in Odessa, including for the children of the noisy neighbors who lived in the apartment one floor above his own. In time he grew attracted to one of the young girls in the family, Olga. In February of 1875 the wide-eyed teenager, still a schoolgirl and more passionate about art and the theater than science and nature, married the pale and gloomy professor.

"Olga soon discovered that her new husband was a knotted skein. He was given to sudden, furious outbursts. An unexpected noise -- ­a barking dog or a mewing cat -- would unnerve him. He would fly into a rage if confronted with a difficult problem, no matter how frivolous. But he had reasons beyond his own mercurial nature for worrying about his own life and career.

"Mechnikov was living through a time of immense change in Odessa and the empire. Students at the university were calling for better teaching and greater attention to science and the applied arts. Underground circles, from liberal to socialist and revolution­ary, were thriving. Disturbances in the wider empire -- village upris­ings after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, a failed rebellion in Poland in 1863 -- were causing the tsarist government to fear that any calls for reform were masks for revolutionary agitation.

"Public disturbances pitted some of Odessa's citizens against oth­ers: locals against newcomers, liberals against conservatives, young students against older professors, and nearly everyone against Jew­ish shopkeepers and merchants. A pogrom left stores ransacked and houses in Moldavanka razed. When a bomb-throwing terror­ist assassinated Tsar Alexander II in March of 1881, Mechnikov fell into another deep depression, convinced that the political troubles spawned by the killing would surely reach Odessa and the univer­sity, which was already rent by student activism and the appoint­ment of reactionary administrators.

"Throughout his bouts with depression, with his classes can­celed or the university closed, with crowds running through the streets and Olga periodically ill from typhus, and faced with a weak heart and failing eyesight, Mechnikov managed to proceed with the research that eventually made him famous. The problem that concerned him was the body's response to crisis. His con­temporaries, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, had begun to refine the germ theory of disease, the idea that small organisms such as bacteria -- not the imponderable workings of a cold draft or a swampy miasma -- were the true causes of infection and transmis­sion for many diseases.

"Mechnikov's insight, obtained from early experiments on the regenerative power of starfish, was that cells can fight foreign agents introduced into the body. Cells rush to the infected site, surrounding the invading matter and consuming it, a process eas­ily observed under a microscope. Phenomena that had previously been seen as by-products of infection -- white pus around a wound, say -- were actually evidence of the body's healing process. He gave that process the name 'phagocytosis.' Immunity, he reckoned, was simply the ability of an organism to deploy phagocytes against invaders. Inflammation was not only a problem but also a sign of the body's own desperate attempt at a cure. The award of the Nobel Prize marked Mechnikov's research as fundamental to the way sci­entists think about disease and the human body's reaction to it, a theory of immune response covering everything from a splinter to the bubonic plague."



Charles King


Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2011 by Charles King


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