Elie Metchnikoff: A Passionate Scientist

Elie Metchnikoff, Nobel laureate in Medicine and Physiology in 1908, is the father of innate immunity, the rapid, but non-specific defense against infection. He observed the uptake of bacteria by specialised phagocytic white blood cells, especially macrophages (big eaters), and appreciated their significance in preserving health as well as causing disease when activated (the “angry macrophage”). Of interest in this project is his life and work in Russia, the country of his birth, and at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where he died in 1916. While denigrated as a crank by some, his genius is apparent in anticipating modern discoveries regarding the importance of the bacterial flora in the healthy gut, and the role of macrophages in the ageing process, as well as in defense against infection. Above all, he was not only a brilliant scientist, but deeply interested in literature and art. Near the end of his life he had a dramatic meeting with anti-vivisectionist Tolstoy, who had written a famous story, the death of Ivan Illich, based on Metchnikoff’s brother.

A book for the lay reader is planned, which will use a range of personal and experimental sources, and will place his work in a contemporary perspective, with reference to the dilemma of the modern scientist.

Project leader(s):
  • Siamon Gordon (Oxford)

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