Skip to main content

Metchnikoff, Elie


(b. Ivanovka, Kharkov Province, Russia, 16 May 1845; d. Paris, France, 15 July 1916)

embryology, comparative anatomy, pathology, bacteriology, immunology.

Elie was the youngest of the five children of Ilia Ivanovitch Metchnikoff and Emilia Nevahovna, the daughter of the Jewish writer Leo Nevahovna. His mother played an important role in the boy’s education and encouraged his scientific career. A tutor to ihe family stimulated Elie to become interested in the wonders of natural history at an early age. In 1856 he enrolled in the Kharkov Lycée, where he made a splendid academic record, his main passion being biology. At this time he read Buckle’s History ofCivilization in England, and throughout his life strongly adhered to one of Buckle’s main tenets, that through science would come man’s advancement.

Elie’s mother dissuaded him from the study of medicine because she believed thai he was too sensitive for such a career. He did win her approval to study physiology and zoology, to which he increasingly devoted his life. The seventeen-year-old student was especially interested in the subject of protoplasm and decided to go to Würzburg lo study with Koelliker. The German term did not begin in September. Disappointed, lonely, and bewildered in the strange city, Metchnikoff hurried back home, content to study for two years at the university in Kharkov. In 1864 he studied the sea fauna on the North Sea island of Heligoland, a naturalist’s paradise. Here the botanist Ferdinand Cohn gave Metchnikoff friendly guidance and advised him to continue his work with Rudolf Leuckart at Giessen. Metchnikoff made his first real scientific discovery in Leuckart’s laboratory when he found an interesting example of alternation of generations (sexual and asexual) in nematodes. In Giessen, Metchnikoff also read Fritz Müller’s Für Darwin. The German enthusiasm for the theory of evolution greatly influenced him. He worked feverishly and began to suffer from severe eyestrain. This malady prevented him for a time from using his chief research tool, the microscope.

In 1865 Metchnikoff went to Naples, where he began a systematic study of the development of germ layers in invertebrate embryos, a subject less well understood at the time than the similar development in vertebrate embryos. Metchnikoff devoted many years to studying the comparative development of the embryonic layers of lower animals. Like many zoologists of the immediate post-Origin of Species period, Metchnikoff’s constant aim was to show that in their development the lower animals follow a plan similar to that of the higher animals. He thus attempted to establish a definite link between the two divisions and to add to the theory of evolution. In Naples he befriended another young Russian zoologist, Aleksandr Kovalevsky, with whom he collaborated on several embryological studies.

Because cholera was epidemic in Naples in the autumn of 1865, Metchnikoff decided to continue his studies in Germany. He went to Göttingen where he briefly worked with W. M. Keferstein and then with Henle. In the following summer he went to Munich to study with Siebold. After again doing research together in Naples, Kovalevsky and Metchnikoff returned to Russia in 1867 to obtain their doctoral degrees in St. Petersburg. For their work on the development of germ layers in invertebrate embryos, they shared the prestigious Karl Ernst von Baer prize, presented by the discoverer of the human ovum. Metchnikoff also received a faculty position at the new University of Odessa. At age twenty-two the instructor was younger than some of his pupils. He soon was embroiled in a controversy with a senior colleague over attendance at a scientific meeting. The conflict was resolved, but Metchnikoff thought the atmosphere at the university in St. Petersburg would be more conducive to work and teaching and when he was offered a job there in 1868 he gladly accepted. The move proved a disappointment, for the working conditions were, if anything, worse than in Odessa. Metchnikoff was barely able to make ends meet, and he led a lonely existence.

He did meet Ludmilla Federovna, who on one occasion nursed him during an illness. They were married in 1869. Trouble was already on the horizon. The bride was disabled by severe “bronchitis,” and she had to be carried to the church in a chair. For the next five years Metchnikoff devoted himself to caring for his wife, who subsequently died of the tuberculous disease already present on her wedding day. To enable him to lake Ludmilla to a warmer climate, he did translations besides his teaching and researches. His eyesight again weakened, and he became extremely distraught. In the winter of 1873 he hurried to Madeira to see Ludmilla, who by now was extremely sick. She died in April 1873, and Metchnikoff collapsed. He did not attend the funeral and on his way back to Russia attempted suicide. He swallowed a large dose of morphine, which caused him to vomit, thereby sparing his life.

After this period of tragedy and exhaustion, Metchnikoff slowly returned to his scientific work, but his eyesight was not sufficiently restored to allow microscopic work. Instead he planned an anthropological trip to the Kalmuk steppes, where he observed the natives and carried out comparative physical measurements. He concluded that the development of Mongol natives was arrested in comparison with that of the Caucasian race, although relative bodily proportions were the same. He ascribed the growth lag of the Kalmuks to a state of slight but chronic intoxication, which was the effect of the habitual drinking of fermented milk.

The trip helped Metchnikoff to recover from the hardships of the previous five years and restored his eyesight. He again returned to his job in Odessa, to which he had been recalled in 1872. Metchnikoff was already well established in the scientific world by this time. He had published twenty-five papers, most of which dealt with the development and characteristics of invertebrates, and Odessa afforded him ample material for collecting sea fauna. Moreover, he was a successful and popular lecturer. In 1875 he married Olga Belokopitova, a young student who lived with her large family in the apartment directly over Metchnikoff’s. It was a happy marriage, and his wife was a devoted companion and co-worker for the remainder of his life.

Political pressures, student unrest, and Olga’s severe bout of typhoid fever in 1880 led Metchnikoff to a second suicide attempt. He injected himself with the spirochete of relapsing fever. A long illness resulted, but he recovered with a renewed zest for life. Cardiac disturbances, from which he suffered in his last years, seem to have begun with his bout of relapsing fever, but the eyestrain, a great cause of worry and inconvenience in earlier years, never did return.

In 1880 the Metchnikoffs spent the summer on Mine Metchnikoff’s family farm. A beetle infestation was destroying the grainfields, and Metchnikoff studied the insects and found that some had died from a fungus infection. He conceived the idea of starting an epidemic among the beetles. After experimenting with the idea in the laboratory, he had some success in its implementation in the fields. This study was the starting point for his interest in the infectious diseases. A remarkably similar chain of events occurred in the career of Pasteur, who would in future years play a significant role in Metchnikoff’s life.

By 1882 the unrest in Russia, and at the University of Odessa in particular, was so great that the nonpolitical Metchnikoff wished to leave for the quiet atmosphere of Messina, where he could better devote himself to science. In Messina he made his greatest scientific discovery, the role of phagocytes in the defense of the animal body; but the related strands of this concept of the cellular mechanism of immunity had begun to take shape somewhat earlier.

While working in Giessen in 1865, Metchnikoff had studied and observed intracellular digestion in roundworm (Fabricia). He compared this type of digestion to that found in some protozoans and saw in the similarity one more proof of a genetic connection between a lower and somewhat higher animal form. A dozen years later he published another paper that dealt with the digestive process and in 1880 “Über die intracellulär Verdauung bei Coelenteraten.” Here he showed that endodermal and mesodermal cells take up carmine granules suspended in water. He did not discover the exact mode of uptake of dye by the cell.

This phenomenon was not an original discovery by Metchnikoff. In 1862 Ernst Haeckel had described in his monograph on Radiolaria white blood cells ingesting dye particles. Several other investigators reported similar results, but it was Metchnikoff who made the proper interpretation and who realized the significance of the link between phagocytic digestion and the body’s defense.

In Messina in 1882 Metchnikoff observed that the mobile cells in a transparent starfish larva surrounded intruding foreign bodies, a phenomenon similar to the inflammatory response in animals with a vascular system. These mobile cells were derived not from the endoderm, the layer that gives rise to the digestive system, but from the mesoderm. Metchnikoff reasoned correctly that these mesodermal cells might serve in the defense of the animal against intruders and that this observation had very wide implications. He devoted the next twenty-five years to the development and popularization of his theory. As he later explained, “Thus it was in Messina that the great event of my scientific life took place. A zoologist until then, I suddenly became a pathologist.”

Both Kleinenberg and Virchow, who were in Messina that summer of 1882, encouraged Metchnikoff. Carl Claus in Vienna urged Metchnikoff to publish his findings, and in 1883 the first of many papers appeared in which Metchnikoff explored the newly developing field of immunology. In Claus’s Arbeiten, Metchnikoff first used the term phagocyte, derived from the Greek, instead of Fresszellen (eating cells). Metchnikoff had been studying the evolution of the alimentary tract. One question that had arisen was whether the lower metazoa retained the power of using mesodermal and also endodermal cells for digestion. He observed that in starfish larvae the wandering or mobile cells of mesodermal origin were active in the metamorphosis of the larva. These cells resorbed the parts of the larva that were no longer used. By simple experiment Metchnikoff showed that it was but a short step from resorption of useless parts to a similar role when a foreign particle was introduced into the organism.

In the next years Metchnikoff showed that the mobile cells (the white blood corpuscles) of the higher animals and man also developed from the mesodermal layer of the embryo and were responsible for ridding the body of foreign invaders, especially bacteria. Although Virchow supported him and published Metchnikoff’s papers in his Arehiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und für klinische Medizin, the phagocyte theory ran counter to many commonly held theories of the time.

For instance, Julius Cohnheim, a pupil of Virchow’s, had shown that the pus cells of the inllammatory process were derivatives of the bloodstream, and not of the surrounding connective tissue, as Virchow had claimed. Cohnheim further maintained that without blood vessels to bring the while blood cells, there could be no inflammation. Metchnikoff claimed that the action of mobile cells in clearing an organism of foreign material or no-longer-useful parts was a form of inflammation. According to Metchnikoff, furthermore, one could observe this action in starfish larva altogether lacking a vaseular system.

A serious objection to this new theory of bodily defense was the currently held idea that the white blood cells took up invading particles or bacteria and spread them throughout the body. These phagocytes of Metchnikoff were then far from salutary and were believed to be helpful to the invader rather than to the host. There was also the usual resistance to major innovations in thought or approach.

Metchnikoff had been in a number of scientific and personal fights in his early career, and it was natural that he now became a staunch defender of his new theory. He devised new experiments and new arguments and warded otV one attack after another upon his brainchild. Much of his voluminous writing in the years 1883 to 1910 was dedicated to elaboration or modification of the role of phagocytes in inflammation and immunity; but he always held tenaciously to the underlying idea of the central role of the phagocytes.

By 1886 Metchnikoff was well known as a biologist and also as a microbiologist and pathologist, and was invited back to Odessa, where he had taught from 1873 to 1882. The city had established a bacteriological institute similar to the Pasteur Institute of Paris. In Odessa there was to be a combination of basic research and the production of antirabies vaccine.

Metchnikoff headed the Institute in 1886 and pari of 1887, but found that the internal strife among the members and his inability to carry out immunizations himself, because he was not a physician, combined to make life and work there unpleasant. He and his wife traveled to various centers in Europe in search of a congenial place to settle. It was Pasteur in Paris who made them most welcome and who gave Metchnikoff a laboratory in which to work. In 1888 the Metchnikoffs moved to Paris, where Elie worked for the last twenty-eight years of his life. This was an honorary position because Metchnikoff had sufficient income from his parents-in-law’s estate to live without salary.

Metchnikoff quickly became a revered member of the small circle of the Institute, where friendships and working relationships were close. He began to attract students to his laboratory and set most of them to work answering the various objections to the theory of phagoevtosis, elucidating ways in which the white blood cells were attracted to and ingested bacteria, or determining how, in general, the mechanism of immunity worked. Among his many talented students was Bordet, who in 1919 received the Nobel Prize for his work on complement fixation.

Metchnikoff also gave public lectures, for he believed the popularization of science to be important. In 1891 he delivered a series of talks on inflammation. In these talks Metchnikoff dealt with the history of the various theories of inflammation and their investigation, and chiefly with the role of phagocytes in the animal kingdom. The lectures were well-attended and Pasteur himself came. The series was published as Leçons sur la pathologie compurée de l’inflammation in 1892 and in English translation in the following year.

Metchnikoff felt that the decade 1895–1905 was the happiest period of his life. He and his wife lived outside of Paris in Sèvres, and he came to the Institute each morning by train. He continued his research in immunity and also into the problem of fever and the mechanisms of infection. While attending the International Medical Congress in Paris in 1900, he realized that there should be a summary of his and his antagonists’ different theories. He began to write a large and comprehensive book, L’immunité dans les maladies infectieuses (1901). This book was a magnificent review of the entire field of both comparative and human immunology. The work was also, of course, a defense of the theory of phagocytosis, which the humoral theory of immunity seriously challenged. The work of the German bacteriologists, especially Emil Behring, Paul Ehrlich, and Robert Koch, which led to discovery of many new bacteria, toxins, and antitoxins, strengthened the beliefs of those who held to a noncellular theory of immunity. Even before the English edition of Immunity in Infectious Diseases was issued in 1905, two British investigators, A. E. Wright and S. R. Douglas, put forth their theory of opsonins, which postulated that something in the fluid portions of the blood helped the white blood cells to digest bacteria. Hence a compromise was beginning to take shape. In 1908 Metchnikoff and Ehrlich shared the Nobel Prize for their researches illuminating the understanding of immunity.

After the Immunity was finished, Metchnikoff turned his attention to the problems of aging and the idea of death. With his friend and co-worker Émile Roux, he began to study syphilis, one disease that was known to be implicated in cardiovascular pathology. In 1903 Metchnikoff and Roux discovered that syphilis was transmissible to monkeys, thereby destroying the old theory that the disease was exclusively human and inaccessible to experiment. They also showed the importance and efficacy of early treatment of the primary lesion with mercurial ointment.

In a series of books and lectures between 1903 and 1910 Metchnikoff developed his thoughts on the prolongation of life. He stressed proper hygienic and dietary rules. His idea of orthobiosis, or right living, included careful attention to the flora of the intestinal canal. He believed that intestinal putrefaction was harmful and that the introduction of lactic-acid bacilli, as in yogurt, accounted for the longevity of the Bulgars. He introduced sour milk into his own diet and thought that his health improved. Although his name became associated with a commercial yogurt preparation, he had not endorsed it and realized no profit from it.

In his Nature of Man Metchnikoff argued that when diseases have been suppressed and life has been hygienically regulated, death would come only with extreme old age. Death would then be natural, accepted gratefully, and robbed of its terrors.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 was a profound shock to Metchnikoff. Not only was there an interruption of the work of the Pasteur Institute, but Metchnikoff was forced to acknowledge that science had not yet brought man to that stage of civilization which he had envisioned. When he became ill and weaker in the summer of 1916, he faced death placidly, according to the tenets of his own philosophy. He was moved from his country house to the rooms at the Pasteur Institute that had been occupied by Pasteur. There he died of cardiac failure on 15 July 1916.


I. Original Works. A complete list of Metchnikoff’s arts. and bks. is available in the Zeiss trans, of Olga Metchnikoff’s biog. (see below). A less complete list may be found in the English trans. and in the Dover repr. of the Lectures on Inflammation. “Metchnikoff” is the preferred spelling. The name appears that way on the French original eds. of his work. American catalogs usually list it under “Mechnikov.”

The major bks. by Metchnikoff that have been translated into English are included here. The French original and the German translations often predated the English by one to four years: Lectures on the Comparative Pathology of Inflammation, delivered at the Pasteur Institute in 1891, trans. by F. A. and E. H. Starling (London, 1893), repr. with a new intro. by Arthur M. Silverstein (New York, 1968); The Nature of Man; Studies in Optimistic Philosophy, trans. by P. C. Mitchell (New York, 1903); Immunity in Infectious Diseases, trans. by F. G. Binnie (Cambridge, 1905), repr. with a new intro. by Gert H. Brieger (New York, 1968); The New Hygiene. Three Lectures on the Prevention of Infectious Diseases (London, 1906); The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies, trans. by P. C. Mitchell (New York, 1908); and The Founders of Modern Medicine; Pasteur, Koch, Lister, trans. by D. Berger (New York, 1939), which was originally published in 1933.

II. Secondary Literature. The most important source for details of Metchnikoff’s life and work is the memoir written by his wife, Olga Metchnikoff, Life of Elie Metchnikoff 1845–1916, trans. by E. Ray Lankester (Boston, 1921). Heinz Zeiss translated the original French into a German ed., Elias Metschnikow, Leben und Werk (Jena, 1932), in which he included many additional letters, excellent nn., and the most complete bibliog. of Mctchnikoff’s writings that I have seen. A. Besredka, a devoted student and co-worker, wrote Histoire d’une idée, l’oeuvre de E. Metchnikoff (Paris, 1921). Pierre Lépine, Elie Metchnikoff et l’immunologie (Vichy, 1966), is helpful for personal details and for its many photographs.

Useful arts. include Alice G. Elftman, “Metchnikoff as a Zoologist,” in Victor Robinson Memorial Volume (New York, 1948), 49–60; R. B. Vaughn, ’The Romantic Rationalist, a Study of Elie Metchnikoff,” in Medical History, 10 (1965), 201–215; and Denise Wrotnowska, “Elie Metchnikoff quelques documents inédits conservés an Musée Pasteur,” in Archives Internationales d’histoire des sciences, 21 (1968), 115–136.

Gert H. Brieger

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Metchnikoff, Elie." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 25 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Metchnikoff, Elie." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (April 25, 2017).

"Metchnikoff, Elie." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from

Metchnikoff, Élie (1845-1916)

Metchnikoff, Élie (1845-1916)

Russian immunologist

Élie Metchnikoff was a pioneer in the field of immunology and won the 1908 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discoveries of how the body protects itself from disease-causing organisms. Later in life, he became interested in the effects of nutrition on aging and health, which led him to advocate some controversial diet practices.

Metchnikoff, the youngest of five children, was born in the Ukrainian village of Ivanovka on May 16, 1845, to Emilia Nevahovna, daughter of a wealthy writer, and Ilya Ivanovich, an officer of the Imperial Guard in St. Petersburg. He enrolled at the Kharkov Lycee in 1856, where he developed an especially strong interest in biology. At age 16, he published a paper in a Moscow journal criticizing a geology textbook. After graduating from secondary school in 1862, he entered the University of Kharkov, where he completed a four-year program in two years. He also became an advocate of the theory of evolution by natural selection after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

In 1864, Metchnikoff traveled to Germany to study, where his work with nematodes (a species of worm) led to the surprising conclusion that the organism alternates between sexual and asexual generations. His studies at Kharkov, coupled with his interest in Darwin's theory, convinced him that highly evolved animals should show structural similarities to more primitive animals. He pursued his studies of invertebrates in Naples, Italy, where he collaborated with Russian zoologist Alexander Kovalevsky. They demonstrated the homology (similarity of structure) between the germ layersembryonic sheets of cells that give rise to specific tissuein different multicellular animals. For this work, the scientists were awarded the Karl Ernst von Baer Prize.

Metchnikoff was only twenty-two when he received the prize and had a promising career ahead of himself. However, he soon developed severe eye strain, a condition that hampered his work and prevented him from using the microscope for the next fifteen years. Nevertheless, in 1867, he completed his doctorate at the University of St. Petersburg with a thesis on the embryonic development of fish and crustaceans. He taught at the university for the next six years before moving to the University of Odessa on the Black Sea where he studied marine animals.

During the summer of 1880, he spent a vacation on a farm where a beetle infection was destroying crops. In an attempt to curtail the devastation, Metchnikoff injected a fungus from a dead fly into a beetle to see if he could kill the pest. Metchnikoff carried this interest in infection with him when he left Odessa for Italy, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1884. A zoologist up to that point, Metchnikoff began to focus more on pathology, or the study of diseases.

This transformation was due primarily to his study of the larva of the Bipinniara starfish. While studying this larva, which is transparent and can be easily observed under the microscope, Metchnikoff saw special cells surrounding and engulfing foreign bodies, similar to the actions of white blood cells in humans that were present in areas of inflammation . During a similar study of the water flea Daphniae, he observed white blood cells attacking needle-shaped spores that had invaded the insect's body. He called these cells phagocytes, from the Greek word phagein, meaning, to eat.

While scientists thought that human phagocytes merely transported foreign material throughout the body, and therefore spread disease, Metchnikoff realized they performed a protective function. He recognized that the human white blood cells and the starfish phagocytes were embryologically homologous, both being derived from the mesoderm layer of cells. He concluded that the human cells cleared the body of diseasecausing organisms. In 1884, he injected infected blood under the skin of a frog and demonstrated that white blood cells in higher animals served a similar function as those in starfish larvae. The scientific community, however, still did not accept his idea that phagocytic cells fought off infections.

Metchnikoff returned to Odessa in 1886 and became the director of the Bacteriological Institute. He continued his research on phagocytes in animals and pursued vaccines for chicken cholera and sheep anthrax . Hounded by scientists and the press because of his lack of medical training, Metchnikoff fled Russia a year later. A chance meeting with French scientist Louis Pasteur led to a position as the director of a new laboratory at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. There, he continued his study of phagocytosis for the next twenty-eight years.

But conflict with his fellow scientists continued to follow him. Many scientists asserted that antibodies triggered the body's immune response to infection. Metchnikoff accepted the existence of antibodies but insisted that phagocytic cells represented another important arm of the immune system . His work at the Pasteur Institute led to many fundamental discoveries about the immune response, and one of his students, Jules Bordet , contributed important insights into the nature of complement , a system of antimicrobial enzymes triggered by antibodies. Metchnikoff received the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1908 jointly with Paul Ehrlich for their work in initiating the study of immunology and greatly influencing its development.

Metchnikoff's interest in immunity led to writings on aging and death. His book The Nature of Man, published in 1903, extolled the health virtues of "right living," which for him included consuming large amounts of fermented milk or yogurt made with a Bulgarian bacillus. In fact, his own name became associated with a popular commercial preparation of yogurt, although he received no royalties. With the exception of yogurt, Metchnikoff warned of eating uncooked foods, claiming that the bacteria present on them could cause cancer. Metchnikoff claimed he even plunged bananas into boiling water after unpeeling them and passed his silverware through flames before using it.

On July 15, 1916, after a series of heart attacks, Metchnikoff died in Paris at the age of 71. He was a member of the French Academy of Medicine, the Swedish Medical Society, and the Royal Society of London, from which he received the Copley Medal. He also received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.

See also Phagocyte and phagocytosis

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Metchnikoff, Élie (1845-1916)." World of Microbiology and Immunology. . 25 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Metchnikoff, Élie (1845-1916)." World of Microbiology and Immunology. . (April 25, 2017).

"Metchnikoff, Élie (1845-1916)." World of Microbiology and Immunology. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from

Élie Metchnikoff

Élie Metchnikoff

The Russian physiologist and bacteriologist Élie Metchnikoff (1845-1916) is best noted for his phagocytic theory of immunity. He also made contributions to comparative pathology, evolutionary embryology, and microbiology. E

On May 15, 1845, Élie Metchnikoff was born in the Ukrainian village of Ivanovka. At the age of 17 he entered Kharkov University; the following year he produced his first scientific work, "Some Facts from the Life of Infusoria" and he completed his studies in the natural sciences by the time he was 19. In 1864 he left for Germany to expand his knowledge of zoology, studying under Rudolf Leuckart, the father of modern parasitology.

Metchnikoff went on to the universities of Göttingen and Munich. He returned to Russia in 1867, received his master's degree in zoology after presenting his thesis, The History of the Embryonal Development of Sepiola, and was appointed dozent at Novorossiisk University in Odessa. In 1868 he successfully defended his doctoral thesis, The History of the Development of Nebalia, at the University of St. Petersburg.

Metchnikoff became professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at Novorossiisk University in 1870. His interest focused on comparative embryology, intracellular digestion of simple organisms, the role of phagocytes in the digestive process, and biological methods of controlling harmful insects. After resigning his position in 1882, he pursued his experiments in his home laboratory, studying pathological microbes. Four years later Metchnikoff, along with Nikolai Fedorovich Gamaleia, organized Russia's first and the world's second bacteriological station. Its function was to prepare vaccines for diseases afflicting man and beast, including rabies, foot-and-mouth disease, anthrax, and cholera. Encountering opposition, ignorance, and animosity from Odessa doctors, St. Petersburg newspapers, and interfering bureaucratic officials, Metchnikoff decided in 1887 to leave Russia forever.

In Paris, Metchnikoff met the ailing Louis Pasteur, and he was given the use of a personal laboratory and title of chief at the Pasteur Institute, where he began the most productive period of his career. The vaguely formulated concepts that Metchnikoff had conceived while investigating intracellular digestion eventually crystallized into his famous phagocytic theory of immunity. In 1883 he had revealed his theory of phagocytosis in "The Curative Forces of the Organism," delivered before the Seventh All-Russian Congress of Naturalists and Physicians in Odessa. The idea that phagocytes, a type of white blood cell, actually destroy living bacteria and other foreign matter and constitute a body's natural defense against infection was not favorably received by many scientists. However, by 1892 the accumulating experimental evidence supported Metchnikoff's theory of immunity. That year he also released his important work Comparative Pathology of Inflammation, and in 1903 his Immunity in Infectious Diseases appeared, soon becoming the classic text on immunology. For his many works on the processes of immunity he shared the Nobel Prize in 1908.

In 1903 Metchnikoff was appointed deputy director of the Pasteur Institute. About this time he began investigating old age. His ideas on the aging process appear in The Nature of Man (1903), Studies in Optimism (1907), and Forty Years' Search for a Rational Outlook (1913). He proposed the controversial theory of orthobiosis, which stressed "hygienic rules" for the prolongation of life. Despite frequent opposition to his theories, Metchnikoff became a renowned figure in the world of science and received many honors, awards, and titles. He died on July 16, 1916.

Further Reading

Still the best biography of Metchnikoff is the one by his wife, Olga Metchnikoff, Life of Élie Metchnikoff (trans. 1921). Biographical sketches appear in Edwin E. Slosson, Major Prophets of Today (1914), and Herman Bernstein, Celebrities of Our Time: Interviews (1924). An introductory work on immunology is Loyd Y. Quinn, Immunological Concepts (1968), and a fine standard text in this field is William c. Boyd, Fundamentals of Immunology (1943; 6th ed. 1966).

Additional Sources

Tauber, Alfred I., Metchnikoff and the origins of immunology: from metaphor to theory, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Élie Metchnikoff." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 25 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Élie Metchnikoff." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (April 25, 2017).

"Élie Metchnikoff." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from

Metchnikoff, Élie

Élie Metchnikoff (ālē´ mĕch´nĬkôf), 1845–1916, Russian biologist. He studied in Russia and Germany, lectured at the Univ. of Odessa, and, after working with Pasteur in Paris, became (1904) deputy director of the Pasteur Institute there. He introduced the theory of phagocytosis, i.e., that certain white blood cells are able to engulf and destroy harmful substances such as bacteria. For his work on immunity he shared with Paul Ehrlich the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He developed a theory that lactic-acid bacteria (B. acidophilus) in the digestive tract could, by preventing putrefaction, prolong life; and with P. P. É. Roux he experimented with calomel ointment as a treatment for syphilis. His writings include Immunity in Infectious Diseases (1905) and The Nature of Man (1938).

See biography by O. Metchnikova (1921).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Metchnikoff, Élie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 25 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Metchnikoff, Élie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (April 25, 2017).

"Metchnikoff, Élie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from