Shtern, Lina Solomonovna

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(also Stern, Schtern) (b. Libava [Libau, Liepaja], Latvia, 14 [26] August 1878; d. Moscow, 7 March 1968),

biochemistry, chemical physiology.

Shtern made important contributions to biochemistry and chemical physiology. She was one of the founders of modern chemical physiology in the USSR. She did pioneering work on the hematoencephalic barrier, that is, the frontier between the blood and the cerebrospinal fluid around the brain (the blood-brain barrier). During her long life she published more than 500 scientific articles. She was the founder and chief editor (until her arrest) of the Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine, and she was in the editorial board of several other scientific journals.

Early Life Born in a Jewish family in czarist Russia, educated and employed in Switzerland, later a professor in the Soviet Union, Lina S. Shtern was a cosmopolitan long before the Soviet Union’s anti-Semitic instigators denounced people such as her as (bad) Jews using the word cosmopolitan instead of Jew.

Shtern was born in the family of a successful merchant, and her grandfather was a rabbi. Because of the discrimination against Jews in czarist Russia, Jewish students had to study mostly in foreign countries, among others in Germany. Like many Jewish women from Russia, Lina Shtern after school went to Switzerland and became one of the Russian women students at the University of Geneva. Shtern studied medicine, and in 1903 she received her doctoral degree. Because of the hopeless job situation for women scientists, and especially women Jews, in Russia, Shtern stayed in Switzerland. After completing her dissertation she got an assistant position; in 1906 she received the venia legendi (privatdozent); and finally, in 1917, she became professor of physiological chemistry at the University of Geneva. She was a disciple of Jean-Louis Prevost Jr. (1838–1927) and worked together with his successor Federico Battelli (1867–1941). Until 1925 she succeeded in a remarkable scientific career as one of the first famous women scientists in Europe. In a short autobiographical sketch Shtern described herself as a feminist (Shtern, 1930, p. 140).

Move to Moscow Attracted by the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union, Shtern decided in the middle of 1920s to move to the Soviet Union. From 1925 onward she lived and worked in Moscow. She became a full professor of physiology at the second Moscow University (the University for Medicine), and in 1929 she became director of her own scientific research institute, the Institute for Physiology. Her institute first belonged to the ministry (commissariat) for higher education; later it was one of the academic institutes of the Academy of Science of the USSR. She described the aim of her institute in some letters to the neuroscientists Ce’cile (1875–1962) and Oskar (1870–1959) Vogt in Berlin: she wanted to establish a research program to investigate physiology from the different perspectives of medicine, biology, and chemistry. And she wanted to create an international research institute, where scientists from all countries could work and publish together. This aim she could not fully realize because of the Stalinist policy, yet for more than ten years, she and her team had many scientific successes.

In 1939 Shtern was elected a full member of the Academy of Science of the USSR, the first woman scientist of the USSR to be thus honored. Furthermore, in 1944 she became a member of the newly established Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR. Already in 1932 she had become a member of the oldest German Academy of Science (Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher), the Leopoldina; but because of the Nazi regime and its racist policy, she was stricken from the membership list soon after the nomination. After 1945 she was again a member of the Leopoldina.

Although she had been a member of the Communist Party since 1939, Shtern began to act in politics only when the German troops overtook the Soviet Union in June 1941. Asked to participate in antifascist committees, Shtern accepted and became member of several such committees. In 1941–1942 she joined the most important one: she became member of the presidium of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), headed by the famous Yiddish actor Solomon Michoels (Mikhoels; 1890–1948). During World War II (the “great patriotic war,” as it was named in the USSR), Shtern worked on war medicine.

Persecution by the Soviets In 1948 the tragic part of her life began. Because of the anti-Semitic policy of the Soviet State—the government and the leaders of the Communist Party—a campaign was started against “cosmopolitism,” which led soon to arrests and deaths, and new discriminations against Jews were established in all spheres of life. Officially stopped in 1953 (after the death of Joseph Stalin), the anti-Semitic discrimination policy in reality never was ended in the Soviet Union, with fewer arrests after 1953, but with strong barriers against Jews in several professions, including scientific ones.

On 27 January 1948, Shtern was arrested by the MVD. (The secret service in Russia/USSR/Russia was renamed several times: first it was Cheka, then GPU, later OGPU, then NKVD, after 1945 MVD and MGB, then KGB; in the early twenty-first century it is FSB.) She was taken to the notorious Lubjanka prison in Moscow, later to the awful prison Lefortovo. She was interrogated, beaten, and tortured several times. From 1949 to 1952 she was in prison, together with fourteen comrades from the JAC. The trial was planned and prepared at the highest level of the state, under Stalin’s leadership. And the end was already fixed: the death penalty. Because some of the prisoners, including Lina Shtern, fought very courageously, the trial was secret, from 8 May to 18 July 1952 (Naumov, 1994; Rubinstein & Naumov, 2001). Although the accused prisoners defended themselves during this trial for several weeks and openly spoke about the tortures and the falsification of testimony by the prosecutors, Stalin and his close circle decided to kill them. In August 1952 in Moscow, thirteen comrades were killed (one died in the prison). But a wonder happened to Lina Shtern: the dictator Stalin himself struck out her name from the list of the death candidates. More than half a century later there are only rumors about the reason for that; most probably Stalin believed in her capacity as a scientist and hoped she would obtain new medical results that would allow him to live longer.

Thus, Shtern survived the trial and was sent in 1952 by the MVD into exile in Jambul (Central Asia). Fortunately, she was still a member of the Academy of Science of the USSR, therefore, her salary helped her to survive the difficult living conditions of her exile in a small village. After Stalin’s death and the first rehabilitations of his victims, Shtern was allowed to come back to Moscow in June 1953. She never got back her own institute, which had been closed in 1948. She got only a position as head of the physiological department in the Institute for Biophysics of the academy. This important institute became a niche for many political victims of the regime, and it was the ovum of modern molecular biology in the USSR after 1955. In this institute she worked again, and was honored again. But until the end of the USSR, nothing was published about her fate and the fate of the JAC. The obituary of the Academy of Science (1968) was a brief one without any biographical details. Even her successful career in Switzerland was “forgotten.” She got an entry in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, but the years between 1948 and 1955 are missing, and this gap shows informed readers that “something happened” to her in these years. In 1987 a biography about her was published in Moscow with the same gap.

Research Shtern worked in two important fields: first biochemistry, especially physiological chemistry, until about 1917. She studied metabolism, and she studied in vitro the respiration in special tissues. Furthermore, she worked on the characterization of enzymes involved in substrate metabolism. Between 1904 and 1914, Shtern together with Battelli published about thirty articles on oxidation, mostly in the famous biochemical journal Biochemische Zeitschrift of Carl Neuberg (1877–1956). In 1912, Battelli and Shtern published their main results about oxidation and ferments in a long article (Shtern & Batteli, 1912). Starting in 1917, Shtern studied the effects of certain drugs and organ extracts in organisms. Her new scientific field became the blood-brain barrier. From 1919 to 1923, still in Geneva, she studied the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. Because of her work, she came in close contacts with the brain researchers the Vogts at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in Berlin. Between 1925 and 1929, after she moved to the Soviet Union and had to struggle for her own research institute, she could publish nothing. Then another decade of important research began. Between 1930 and 1940, she investigated new studies on the blood-brain barrier and published, together with Soviet and foreign coauthors, some important papers. During World War II, Shtern worked on war medicine, helping thousands of wounded soldiers; in 1943 she received the Stalin Prize for the practical applications of her medical studies.

Already in 1947, accusations were made against her scientific work and the research program of her institute (Rapoport, 1991). She was denounced for having cooperated “too much” with foreigners and employed “too many” Jews in her institute, as well as in the medical journal which she edited. During the years in prison and exile, from 1949 to 1953–1955, she had no opportunity for any scientific research. Perhaps she was able (and was allowed) to read some scientific literature in her exile. Less is known about her scientific work in the Institute for Biophysics.

Lina Shtern is best known as a scientist for her work on the blood-brain barrier. She was one of the first woman scientists in Switzerland (as a professor) and in the USSR (as the first woman member of the Academy of Science); a member of the German academy of science, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (1932); a full member of the Academy of Science of the USSR (1939); a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR (1944); and an honorary doctor at the University of Geneva (1960).



With Federico Battelli. “Die Oxydationsfermente.” Ergebnisse der Physiologie 12 (1912): 96–268.

“Selbstdarstellung (Autobiographical Sketch).” In Führende Frauen Europas, edited by Elga Kern, 137–140. Neue Folge. Munich, Germany: Verlag Ernst Reinhardt, 1930. Republished, edited by Bettina Conrad and Ulrike Leuschner, 1999. Pp. 206–210, remarks 270–271. Contains mistakes.


Borschtschagowski, Alexander. Orden für einen Mord. Die Judenverfolgung unter Stalin. Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1997, pp. 125–137.

Dreifuss, Jean Jacques, and Natalja Tikhonov. “Lina Stern (1878–1968): Physiologin und Biochemikerin, erste Professorin an der Universität Genf und Opfer stalinistischer Prozesse.” Schweizerische Ärztezeitung 86 (2005): 1594–1597.

Hoffer, Gerda. “Lina Stern—Mitglied der sowjetischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (1878–1968).” In Zeit der Heldinnen. Lebensbilder auergewöhnlicher jüdischer Frauen, edited by Gerda Hoffler, 159–184. Munich, Germany: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1999.

Jaenicke, Lothar. “Lina Stern (1878–1968). Die biologische Oxydation. Die Schranken und die Erstickung der Forschung.” BIOspektrum 8 (2002): 374–377.

“Lina & the Brain.” Time, 3 March 1947.

Lustiger, Arno. “Die Geschichte des Jüdischen Antifaschistischen Komitees der Sowjetunion” (Nachwort). In Das Schwarzbuch. Der Genozid an den sowjetischen Juden, edited by Wassili Grossmann and Ilja Ehrenburg, 1093–1101. Hamburg, Germany: Reinbek, Rowohlt, 1994.

———. Rotbuch: Stalin und die Juden. Die tragische Geschichte des Jüdischen Antifaschistischen Komitees und der sowjetischen Juden. Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1998, pp. 371–372. English edition, Stalin and the Jews: The Red Book. The Tragedy of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the Soviet Jews. New York: Enigma, 2003.

Naumov, Vladimir P., ed. Nepravednyj sud. Poslednij stalinskij rasstrel. Stenogramma sudebnogo processa nad chlenami Evrejskogo Antifashistskogo Komiteta. Moscow: Nauka, 1994, pp. 311–321, 332–333.

Rapoport, Yakov. “Lina Stern. Persecution of an Academician.” In The Doctors’ Plot of 1953. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991, pp. 234–253. This book is dedicated to Rapoport’s wife, Sophia Rapoport, who was a student and associate of Lina Shtern; it was published in Russian in Moscow in 1988.

Rubinstein, Joshua, and Vladimir P. Naumov, eds. Stalin’s Secret Pogro: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 400–416; 469. (Contains two photos of Lina Shtern in 1946, the photocopy of the order to arrest Lina Shtern from 27 January 1949, and a photo of her in the prison.

“Shtern, Lina S.” In The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Vol. 2, edited by Marilyn Ogilvie and Joy Harvey, 1189–1190. New York and London: Routledge, 2000.

“Shtern, Lina S. (Obituary).” Vestnik AN SSSR 5 (1968): 118.

Annette B. Vogt