Shtern, Lina (1878–1968)

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Shtern, Lina (1878–1968)

Russian physiologist noted for her discovery of the hematoencephalic barrier and other major scientific discoveries. Name variations: Lina Solomonovna Shtern; Lina Solomonovna Stern; Lina Salomonowna Schtern; Lina Sterna. Born on August 26, 1878, in Liepaja (Libava), Latvia, Russia; died in Moscow on March 7, 1968; educated at the University of Geneva.

Was a professor at the University of Geneva; returned to Russia (1925), and became a major figure in Soviet medical research; was the first woman admitted to the USSR Academy of Sciences; survived the anti-Semitic purges of the late Stalin era; lived to an advanced age as the most illustrious woman scientist of the USSR.

Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Russian Latvia in 1878, Lina Shtern received a medical education in Switzerland and, upon graduation from the University of Geneva in 1904, was invited to join the department of physiology at that institution. She quickly won international recognition for her research in the area of oxidation enzymes and in 1917 was appointed a professor in the biochemistry department of the University of Geneva. Able to speak all of the major European languages, she was a well-known and highly respected scientist not only in Switzerland but in much of Europe as well. Shtern was also prosperous, due in part to her work as a consultant to a number of pharmaceutical firms. In 1925, impressed with the potential for fundamental social changes in the newborn Soviet Union, she moved to Moscow. There she became head of the sub-department of physiology of the Second Moscow Medical Institute, a post she would hold until 1949. In 1929, Shtern became director of the Institute of Physiology of the USSR Academy of Sciences, a position that also lasted until 1949.

Lina Shtern investigated many physiological systems during her long scientific career, but her most important work took place in the period between 1915 and 1935. During this time, she studied the special physiological mechanism in the central nervous system which ensures constancy of the internal medium of the brain and which protects it from harmful external influences, primarily from substances contained in the blood that may damage the brain's nervous tissue. She called this mechanism the "hematoencephalic barrier," that is, a barrier between the blood and the brain tissue, and this term has since become established in medicine and biology. Shtern subsequently extended the principle of barrier mechanisms, based on the permeability of blood capillaries, to all the organs of the body, and it was given the name "histohematic barrier," a term also used in contemporary physiology.

By the mid-1930s, Lina Shtern had become one of the most respected scientists in the Soviet Union. She also gained recognition abroad, being chosen in 1932 as a member of the German Academy of Natural Sciences. In 1934, she was named Honored Scientist of the Russian Soviet Federal Republic. Besides her research and administrative duties, she served as editor of the Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine. In 1935, her 543-page monograph on the hematoencephalic barrier was published, and she was the dedicatee of Problems of Biology and Medicine; this massive Festschrift in her honor was a volume of more than 700 pages of articles written by eminent scientists from around the globe. She became a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1938. The following year, Shtern was the first woman to be named an Academician (full member) of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

During World War II, she concentrated on solving problems of immediate concern to the armed forces, particularly the treatment of wounded military personnel. Her wartime research included important discoveries in the treatment of shock, including a novel method of injecting a solution of potassium phosphate directly into the brain. For her wartime innovations, Shtern was awarded a Stalin Prize in 1943. Outspoken and fearless, Shtern hated injustice wherever she encountered it. In 1943, she wrote Joseph Stalin a letter protesting the ousting of Jews from Soviet scientific and state institutions.

After World War II, Stalin's growing paranoia led him to single out Soviet Jews as enemies of his regime, labeling them "rootless cosmopolitans" and "agents of Zionism." Despite her international scientific reputation, Shtern was not exempt from this wave of persecution. She was at great risk, not only for her blunt criticism of Soviet acts of anti-Semitism but also for having been a member of the wartime Jewish Antifascist Committee created to draw sympathy for the USSR's heroic struggle against Nazi invaders. Many Jewish leaders were murdered or thrown into the Gulag labor camps during this time. In 1949, Shtern was removed from her several positions, and in 1952 she and a large number of other Soviet Jews were placed on trial on trumped-up charges of being American-Zionist agents and other fantastic offenses. In July 1952, she was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment. Shtern spent almost three years imprisoned at Moscow's notorious Lubianka, as well as a short time at Lefortovo prison, which she later described as "hell." She was released in 1954 and rehabilitated with full restoration of her honors, including becoming head of the USSR Academy of Science's physiology laboratory. She had outlived dictator Stalin and was able to witness a full renewal of her status as a major scientific pioneer, which was reflected in the publication of a number of laudatory books and articles demonstrating her many achievements. Lina Shtern died in Moscow on March 7, 1968.


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