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May 15, 2020

Kharkiv University Alumnus Ilya Mechnikov: Outstanding Life of the Nobel Prize Winner


May 15, 2020 is the 175th birth anniversary of Ilya Mechnikov, a prominent Ukrainian physiologist, embryologist, founder of the scientific school, Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine, graduate of 1864 and an honorary doctor of Kharkiv Imperial University. Ilya Mechnikov is a well-known figure in science, a world-class scientist, one of the seven Nobel Prize winners given to the world by Ukraine.

While at gymnasium, he regularly attended the University laboratory of Professor I. P. Shchelkov, where he became interested in studying microscopic objects. The findings of these studies in ciliate biology became the first scientific publication of student Mechnikov in a famous journal of the Moscow Society of Naturalists, who studied the processes of nutrition of unicellular ciliates. It is probable that the emotional impression from scientific observations, in particular the process of capturing the food particle by the cell, helped Mechnikov realize, many years later, a similarity in capturing particles by blood cells capable of phagocytosis.

Professor Shchelkov had a great influence on the future scientist, because it was thanks to him that Mechnikov became a student of the Department of Biology, School of Physics and Mathematics, and not the School of Medicine, as Emilia Lvivna (Ilya’s mother) wanted. Very gifted and hard-working young man, fascinated by biology since childhood, which was inspired by the unique nature of Kupianshchyna and his tutor who adored Slobozhanshchyna landscapes, entered the University in 1862 and graduated in 1864.

The academic atmosphere of the University did not encourage the realization of the young scientist’s creative potential. Wishing to continue his education after graduation, Mechnikov went to Germany, but missed the beginning of semester, so he had to return to Kharkiv. Despite the failure, the trip greatly influenced his further activities, because in Germany he bought Charles Darwin’s work The Origin of Species (1859). Ilya Mechnikov’s further experiments were influenced by Darwin’s evolutionary views. This was of fundamental importance for the emergence of progressive ideas not only in zoological and botanical research, but also in physiological processes and phenomena.

Life was not kind to Mechnikov’: his first wife’s tragic death, suicide attempt, lack of professionally decent work, rejection of his ideas by colleagues at Novorossiysk University, where he worked and laid the foundations of future phagocytic theory, small income, character peculiarities and inexhaustible curiosity, passionate desire to create, originality and novelty of judgments — all this lead him to the Pasteur Institute.

Moving to France allowed the mature scientist not only to develop his own ideas, formed during his student years, but also to move on to generalizations and worldview works, the results of which show that Mechnikov is not only an outstanding scientist but also a great thinker. He joined the galaxy of scientists who, studying the microworld, think about people’s life expectancy. His works did not only formed the basis of the science of human development for many years, but still have not lost their relevance.

Today, on the day of his 175th anniversary, we can confidently say: “He is our contemporary, because the legacy of Ilya Mechnikov is relevant and not even fully understood by contemporaries.” Think about it, the zoologist, who was educated at Kharkiv University, created a number of medical and biological areas, not only relevant today, but also leading in natural science.

All of Ilya Mechnikov’s activities were aimed at improving health and prolonging people’s lives. In his classic work “The Optimistic Studies”, he first introduced the concept of “gerontology” into science, paid considerable attention to the factors regulating human life expectancy. Therefore, it is not by chance that the first scientific school of gerontology was formed at Kharkiv University at the beginning of the 20th century. It took up Mechnikov’s ideas aimed at studying the mechanisms of aging of living organisms. And today, when the pandemic of infection threatens humanity again, we turn to the scientific heritage of the famous Kharkiv scientist Ilya Mechnikov, because together with L. Pasteur he was one of the first to develop, test and apply samples of vaccines.

Professor Anatolii Bozhkov
Head of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, School of Biology,
Director of the Research Institute of Biology

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