The Ukrainian who won a Nobel Prize

Jose Manuel Lopez Nicolas

In recent weeks I have told you about the science behind some typical phenomena and products of our Region, such as the Ciezana flowering or the Asian Cartagena. Today it’s time to change register and write about a top-level scientist who was born, studied, taught and researched in two cities located thousands of kilometers from Murcia but which today are closer than ever to our hearts: Kharkov and Odessa.

In the terrible invasion that Ukraine is suffering, one of the cities hardest hit by Russian troops is Kharkov, the country’s second largest city and one of its main industrial, cultural and educational centers. In this city, one of the most important scientists in history was born on May 16, 1845: Iliá Ilich Méchnikov, winner of the 1908 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.

Neither Mechnikov’s personal life nor his professional career was a bed of roses. His early studies revolved around comparative embryology and anatomy. However, reading the mythical work ‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin (a work that influenced him throughout his life), his passion for botany and geology, and pressure from his mother not to study medicine, they took him to the University of Kharkov. There he only needed two years to graduate in Natural Sciences.

After a tour of various German cities (Giessen, Gottingen and Munich) and Italian cities (Naples) to further his studies, in the fall of 1867 Méchnikov was hired as a professor of zoology at the newly founded University of Odessa, the wonderful port city located on the banks of the Black Sea (in southern Ukraine) which has currently become one of the main objectives of Russian troops due to its great strategic and symbolic value.

Subsequently, Mechnikov traveled to the University of Saint Petersburg to further advance his scientific career. However, the lack of funding and appropriate infrastructure led him to suffer the first depression he had in his life and to return to Odessa. There his health problems continued. The death of his wife in 1873 caused him to enter a depressive state again and he attempted suicide by ingesting a strong dose of opium. But when Mechnikov’s career seemed to come to an end because of his personal problems, Mechnikov was reborn professionally. How did he do it? Resigned his position as professor at the University of Odessa and traveling to the Italian city of Messina. There he returned to his scientific origins and recovered his initial studies on embryology. The Ukrainian devoted himself to the study of marine fauna, specifically starfish and a freshwater crustacean called Daphnia. He also did research with Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, an infectious disease.

Thanks to microbiology – a scientific discipline that has fascinated me since the professor at the University of Murcia, Juan Carlos Argüelles, taught me –, Méchnikov made important inquiries about the system used by different organisms to defend themselves. His results led him in 1885 to propose his famous General Theory of Phagocytosis, according to which when a foreign particle enters an organism, it is protected thanks to the action of specialized cells that destroy foreign bodies, surrounding them with their cytoplasmic membrane and introducing them inside the cell. Mechnikov’s phagocyte theory had enormous significance and gave rise to a true revolution in the field of immunity and infection.

Mechnikov decided to return to Odessa to continue his experiments on the General Theory of Phagocytosis in his country. However, and although he came to direct the Odessa Bacteriological Institute between 1886 and 1888, he soon again met with strong opposition to carry out his research. Tired of so much difficulty, the Ukrainian scientist made another great decision. In 1888 he traveled to Paris to speak with the famous French scientist Louis Pasteur. Hearing him out, Pasteur, who was building a new institute in Paris at the time, offered him a place in his laboratory. Mechnikov hesitated between accepting the proposal or opting for the Koch Institute in Berlin, where it was committed to the theory of humoral immunity as a defense mechanism of organisms (the reconciliation of the two theories came in the 1950s when lymphocytes were recognized as the cells responsible for the two components, humoral and cellular, of immunity) but finally the Ukrainian decided to stay in Paris.


In the French capital Mechnikov was completely happy. Not only did all the obstacles to further research on phagocytosis disappear, but he also dedicated himself to teaching and disseminating science in the form of articles, conferences and appearances in the media… but his career did not end there, far from it . At the Pasteur Institute, the Ukrainian scientist, also the founder of such important scientific disciplines as gerontology (the science of old age), specialized in the study of cholera, tuberculosis and, above all, syphilis. His studies, carried out in collaboration with the French physician, bacteriologist and immunologist Pierre Paul Emile Roux, later allowed the Polish Paul Ehrlich to discover an effective treatment against syphilis.

As a result of all his work, in 1908 came the peak of Mechnikov’s career. That year this Ukrainian, who did not have a good time in his life, shared with Paul Ehrlich the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his very important and transcendent work on phagocytosis and immunity. Finally, on July 16, 1916, after suffering several myocardial infarctions, Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov died in Paris. He did it very far from Kharkov, the city where he was born, and from Odessa, at whose university he taught. Today these two wonderful Ukrainian cities are being razed to the ground by a tyrant. Serve this article as a tribute to this great scientist and the millions of Ukrainian victims of this damn war.

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The Ukrainian who won a Nobel Prize