A resurrection of the life of “one of the founding fathers of immunology,” Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916).
Vikhanski (In Search of the Lost Cord: Solving the Mystery of Spinal Cord Regeneration, 2001, etc.), a Russian-born, Israel-based science journalist, was initially dismissive of the achievements of the Ukrainian-born scientist, depicted as a great Russian hero in her school texts, a depiction she thought was merely Soviet propaganda. What she discovered sheds light on a critical period in medical and cultural history. Germ theory advanced greatly under Louis Pasteur in France and Robert Koch in Germany, and vaccines and serum treatments were developed to prevent or cure disease. Yet next to nothing was known about the body’s natural defenses. Enter Metchnikoff, a zoologist and fervent Darwinian who believed the study of simple organisms could reveal protective mechanisms that would be preserved in higher forms of life. His great epiphany occurred when he used rose thorns to invade the body of a transparent marine organism and, under the microscope, saw the mobilization of cells that engulfed and chewed up the thorns. He called them phagocytes (cell-eaters) and declared them the body’s chief defenders. Meanwhile, scientists in Germany had discovered antibodies. The resulting “Immunity War” pitted French scientists at the Pasteur Institute (where Metchnikoff settled for the remainder of his career) against the Germans. Eventually, the war waned, and Metchnikoff and Paul Ehrlich were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize. Only much later did scientists realize that Metchnikoff’s phagocytes reflected “innate immunity,” an evolutionarily older defense system compared to the “adaptive immunity” represented by antibodies. Metchnikoff went on to develop theories of aging and ideas about gut microbes that spawned a global yogurt revolution. As Vikhanski richly illustrates, Metchnikoff did everything with passion, in both his professional and personal lives.
A portrait that captures not only the man, but also the end-of-the-19th-century dynamism that fostered revolutions in art, politics, and science.