Mechnikov, Illia

Mechnikov, Illia [Мечніков, Ілля; Mečnikov, Illja] (Metchnikoff, Élie) b 15 May 1845 in Ivanivka, Kupianka county, Kharkiv gubernia, d 15 July 1916 in Paris. (Photo: Illia Mechnikov.) Biologist, comparative anatomist, and immunologist; Nobel laureate in 1908 for his discovery of phagocytosis. Mechnikov graduated from Kharkiv University (1864) and worked at Odesa University (1867–8) and Saint Petersburg University (1868–70). In 1870–82 he held the chair of zoology and comparative anatomy at Odesa University. In 1886 he founded (with Mykola Hamaliia and Yakiv Bardakh) and directed the first bacteriological station in the Russian Empire (today the Scientific Research Institute of Virology and Epidemiology), but he was harassed by the Russian medical fraternity and forced to resign in 1887 by the Odesa Medical Society. In 1888 he was invited to Paris by Louis Pasteur, and he headed a laboratory at the Pasteur Institute until his death.

Contrary to then prevailing chemical immunological approaches (championed by P. Ehrlich), Mechnikov's phagocytic theory of immunity (1883) emphasized the role of foraging white blood cells (phagocytes) in attacking and digesting pathogens that invade the body. Mechnikov also conducted zoological studies of infusoria and parasites, embryological studies on the origin and development of germinal layers (several undertaken jointly with Aleksandr Kovalevsky), and periodicity studies on sugar beet weevil (see Seed beetles) infestations and other epidemics. He discovered antilymphocyte globulin (1889) and with Volodymyr Vysokovych developed a concept of the reticuloendothelial system (1892–1903).

Mechnikov was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science (1898), the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1902), and the Académie des Sciences in Paris (1904). He published two popular books that went through many editions in several languages—Études sur la nature humaine (1903) and The Prolongation of Life (1907)—in which he expressed the view that most people die prematurely, estimated an attainable longevity of 100 to 120 years, and advocated yogurt as a key to human rejuvenation.

Mark Adams

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3 (1993).]

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