Ermoleva, Zinaida (1898–1974)

views updated

Ermoleva, Zinaida (1898–1974)

Russian microbiologist, "bacteriochemist," and cholera expert of the Soviet era who is known as "the Mother of Soviet Antibiotics." Name variations: Zinaida Vissarionovna Ermol'eva; Zinaida Yermolyeva or Yermoleva. Born on October 24, 1898, in Frolovo; died in 1974.

Obtained the first Soviet samples of penicillin (1942); obtained laboratory samples of streptomycin (1947); developed a number of Soviet antibiotic agents including interferon, ekmonovicillin, Bicillins, ekmolin, and dipasfen; received the highest scientific honors the Soviet Union bestowed.

One of the few women to rise to the top of the Soviet scientific pyramid, Zinaida Ermoleva began her career in 1921 during the infancy of the Soviet state, when its very survival appeared questionable to most observers. As a researcher working at the Northern Caucasus Bacteriological Institute, she coped with frustrating shortages of laboratory equipment and funds, as well as constant political pressures to create near miracles of public-health reform. Her work was brought to the attention of her superiors, and in 1925 she began working as a researcher at the A.N. Bakh Biochemical Institute of the People's Commissariat for Public Health of the USSR. By the late 1930s, she had also become a leading researcher in the All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine of the USSR, where she concentrated on discovering, and preparing for clinical use, new therapies for infectious diseases. She became a noted expert on cholera and, as early as 1931, was able to create a new treatment for infectious diseases, lysozyme.

During World War II, Ermoleva's two decades of intensive research in the area of infectious diseases was harnessed to the immediate strategic needs of a Soviet Union fighting for its existence against a brutal Nazi foe. She was assigned to the city of Stalingrad during its heroic battle against Hitler's Sixth Army. As an authority on human intestinal infections, she directed the efforts to provide germ-free water—from the Volga river—for the city's Soviet defenders. Her efforts helped to maintain the health of the soldiers who eventually destroyed a previously undefeated Nazi juggernaut. Ermoleva's ampules of bacteriophage, which helped restore to health Red Army soldiers who had become infected with cholera, were flown into besieged Stalingrad along with cases of cartridges and hand grenades. Soviet military leaders regarded the medical supplies approved by Ermoleva to be as important a weapon for achieving victory as the guns, tanks and rocket launchers that were also delivered to the Stalingrad and other fronts.

Because of the immense loss of life and permanent injuries resulting from war-related wounds and infections, Ermoleva felt immense pressure during World War II to quickly develop new and more effective treatments for the septic wounds and gangrene that were all too common at Soviet front-line hospitals and first-aid stations. She had heard about the work of Sir Alexander Fleming in Great Britain, whose discovery of penicillin had saved lives in what had been before considered hopeless cases of advanced infection. Using the traditional method of trial and error, Ermoleva and her assistant Tamara Balezina analyzed many hundreds of mold cultures, working to find one that was effective against infectious bacteria. She hoped to quickly find and isolate a culture that would be effective in ordinary medical practice.

Their spirits flagging, Ermoleva and Balezina one day found themselves in a dank air-raid shelter and noticed some mold growing in a crack of the shelter's wall. They took a sample to their laboratory and almost miraculously discovered that this variety of mold exhibited the effect that they had so long hoped for. This tiny piece of mold became the source of the first sample of Soviet-produced penicillin. Success in the laboratory by no means guaranteed mass production of what appeared to be a promising new medicine, so Ermoleva embarked on another facet of her career, as manager of a major industrial enterprise. She took charge of the facility that manufactured Soviet penicillin on a mass-produced basis. Her success in this work made it possible for the Soviet military to be less dependent on an unreliable flow of medical supplies from its Western Allies. As a result, thousands of lives of Soviet fighting men and women were saved after they had been wounded in battle.

After World War II, Ermoleva's fame continued to increase, and from 1947 to 1954 she worked at the Institute of Antibiotics of the USSR Ministry of Public Health. In 1947, she obtained the first samples of Soviet-produced streptomycin. Over the next decades, she led research teams that produced other antibiotic agents, including interferon, ekmonovicillin, Bicillins, ekmolin, and dipasfen. She developed a reputation for immense energy and superb organization, prompting one of her colleagues, N.F. Gamaleya, to note: "What distinguishes her as a researcher is her readiness to tackle the problems which are most urgent at the moment … and her ability to supply speedy and productive answers to questions posed by life."

A loyal Soviet citizen of the Stalin regime, Ermoleva never questioned the nature or human costs of the Soviet state. In 1943, she received the State Prize of the USSR and over the years received many other awards including two Orders of Lenin as well as numerous medals and commendations. She served for many years as chair of the USSR Ministry of Health Committee on Antibiotics. Her other assignments included that of editor-in-chief of the journal Antibiotiki and Soviet representative to the World Health Organization. Many of her students and co-workers could be found applying their knowledge in universities, research institutes and hospitals throughout the Soviet Union.

Elected a corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences in 1945, she became a full Academician of that prestigious body in 1965. In 1970, Ermoleva was named an Honored Scientific Worker of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. Her accomplishments were often reported in the Soviet press and scientific literature. Following her death in 1974, the high quality of her scientific work in cholera control and prevention, as well as her contributions to the development of antibiotic agents, continued to be cited in scientific journals in the post-Soviet era (most recently in 1998 on the occasion of the centenary of her birth, despite the demise of the Soviet regime in 1991). Memories of Zinaida Ermoleva's powerful and tenacious personality also continued to resonate in the literature of the history of Soviet medical research.


Ermoleva Centenary Commemorative Articles, Antibiotiki i Khimioterapia [Moscow]. Vol. 43, no. 5. May 1998, pp. 1–46.

Maximov, Leonid. "Mother of Soviet Antibiotics," in Culture and Life [Moscow]. No. 3, 1973, pp. 8–9.

Soviet Antibiotics Research. Washington, D.C.: Joint Publications Research Service, 1968.

John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia