The legacy of Elie Metchnikoff

The legacy of Elie Metchnikoff

Ilia Stambler

The recent years marked multiple anniversaries of the founder of gerontology, a foundational figure of modern immunology, aging and longevity science, and of modern medicine generally – Elie Metchnikoff (May 15, 1845 – July 15, 1916). On May 15, 2015, we celebrated the 170th anniversary of his birth, and on July 15, 2016, we marked 100 years since his death. The year 2018 marked 110 years since his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “in recognition of [the] work on immunity” (the Nobel Lecture was delivered on December 11, 1908). And May 15, 2020, we celebrated the 175th anniversary of his birth. The past decade could be truly declared “The Decade of Metchnikoff”! 

For the proponents of healthy longevity and advocates of aging research, Metchnikoff has a special significance. Metchnikoff is of course known as a pioneering immunologist and microbiologist, a vice director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and the Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine of 1908 for the discovery of phagocytosis (a major contribution to the cellular theory of immunity). Yet, he may also be well credited as “the father” of gerontology – the disciplinary term he coined. Both the terms “gerontology” (“the study of aging”) and “thanatology” (“the study of death”) were coined by him in the Etudes On the Nature of Man, published in 1903, which may mark the beginning of these scientific fields.1 To the present day, his scientific reputation has remained high around the world. In fact, Metchnikoff can be considered a unifying cultural symbol for many nations.

Metchnikoff was either a direct originator or one of the primary researchers for a variety of key aging-ameliorating and life-extending methods, experiments and research programs that are still being followed today.2 They include in fact the first truly scientific theory of aging and longevity, based on meticulous histological observations and on a model of dynamic behavior of living tissues, in particular showing the critical role of the immune system (phagocytes) and intoxication of intestinal microflora (microbiome) in degenerative aging processes. Metchnikoff also made a foundational contribution to the discussions of the evolutionary theory of aging, in particular regarding the possibility of “programmed aging.” Thanks to him, there began the development of many practical geroprotective means, including probiotic diets, systemic and adjuvant immunotherapy (serum therapy, in particular the use of cytotoxic sera for tissue stimulation), the study of replacement therapy and regenerative therapy.3

In view of the immense significance of degenerative aging processes for the emergence of virtually all diseases, both communicable and non-communicable, and in view of the accelerating development of potential means to intervene into and ameliorate these processes for the sake of achieving healthy longevity, Metchnikoff’s pioneering contribution to this field assumes an ever greater global significance. The world is rapidly aging, threatening grave consequences for the global society and economy, while the rapidly developing biomedical science and technology stand in the first line of defense against the potential threat. These two ever increasing forces bring gerontology, describing the challenges of aging while at the same time seeking means to address those challenges, to the central stage of the global scientific, technological and political discourse. At this time, it is necessary to honor Metchnikoff, who stood at the origin of gerontological discourse, not just as a scientific field, but as a social and intellectual movement.

There is a tradition to celebrate the anniversaries of great persons (scientists, artists, writers, politicians, generals) to promote the area of their activity and popularize their ideology. It may be hoped that honoring the anniversary of Metchnikoff can serve to promote and popularize the science and ideology of healthy life extension, including the state level. The “Metchnikoff Day” (held on the day of his birth – May 15) can provide an impulse for organizing topical meetings and conferences, a stimulus for research, and publications in the media, dedicated to Metchnikoff’s legacy and continuation of his life’s work – the study of aging and longevity. This may play a positive role not only for the advancement and popularization of research of aging and healthy longevity, but also for the promotion of optimism, peace and cooperation.

Indeed, in 2015, events in honor of the Metchnikoff Day (the 170th anniversary) were held in Ukraine, Russia, UK, Israel, Cyprus.4 In 2020, international online conference were held around the world in honor of Metchnikoff’s 175th anniversary, such as the online conference “Aging, Immunity and COVID-19” and others. It may be hoped that, following these examples, more events and publications will be held around the world in honor of this day in the future. It is possible to dedicate additional special days to organize internationally coordinated actions and educational campaigns in support of longevity science. Thus, in 2013 through 2016, such actions were organized on October 1 (“The International Day of Older Persons” or “The International Longevity Day”).5 Yet, “Metchnikoff’s day” on May 15, can be one of the most unifying, uplifting and educational.

Thus thanks to Metchnikoff’s continuing inspiration and authority, the interest in aging and longevity research can be increased in all the walks and segments of society. And thanks to the increased interest and education, the research itself may intensify, producing an improved capacity to contribute to the achievement of healthy longevity for all.

Consider, for example, several statements by Metchnikoff that can inspire thought and action even now. As he stated in Etudes on the Nature of Man (1903, p. 201):1

“It has been long noted that aging is very similar to disease. Therefore it is not surprising that human beings feel a strong aversion to aging. … Undoubtedly, it is a mistake to consider aging as a physiological phenomenon. It makes as much sense to accept aging as a normal phenomenon, because everybody ages, as it makes sense to accept childbirth pain as normal, because only very few women are spared it. In both cases, we deal, of course, with pathological and not with purely physiological phenomena. Inasmuch as people endeavor to mitigate or eliminate the pains of a woman in labor, it is as natural to endeavor to eliminate the evils brought by aging. However, while during childbirth pains, it is enough to apply an anesthetic, aging is a chronic evil against which it is much more difficult to find a cure.”

And as he asserted in Forty Years in Search of a Rational Worldview (1914):6

“The second of Bergson’s questions “What are we doing in this world?” should be formulated differently: “What should we do in this world?” Our answer to this, presented in this work and elsewhere, can be stated as follows: “We should, by all means, strive that people, ourselves included, live their full life cycle in harmony of feeling and of mind, until reaching, in the ripest old age, a sense of saturation with life. The main misfortune on earth is that people do not live to that limit and die prematurely.” This statement is the basis of all moral actions… It is difficult to imagine that, in some more or less distant future, science will not accomplish this goal and will not solve the problem of the prolongation of human life to a desired limit, as well as rectify other disharmonies of the human nature.”

Can there be a stronger call to thought and to action for the combat of degenerative aging and for the prolongation of healthy human life? Let us hope this call will continue to be heard and acted upon.

References and notes

  1. I.I. [Ilya Ilyich] Metchnikoff, Etudy o Prirode Cheloveka (Etudes On the Nature of Man), Izdatelstvo Academii Nauk SSSR (The USSR Academy of Sciences Press), Moscow, 1961 (1903). The first French edition, Elie Metchnikoff, Études sur la Nature Humaine, was published in Paris (Masson) in 1903. The Russian translation used here was done by Elie Metchnikoff and his wife Olga. The book is also available in English (The Nature of Man: Studies in Optimistic Philosophy, translated by P.C. Mitchell, Putnam, NY, 1908 (1903) Unless otherwise specified, all the excerpts quoted in the present work are in my translation.
  2. Ilia Stambler, “Elie Metchnikoff – the founder of longevity science and a founder of modern medicine: In honor of the 170th anniversary,” Advances in Gerontology, 28(2), 207-217, 2015 (Russian), 5(4), 201-208, 2015 (English).
  3. Ilia Stambler, A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century, Longevity History, 2014.
  4. Ilia Stambler, “The 170th anniversary of Elie Metchnikoff – the founder of gerontology, May 15, 2015,” Longevity for All.;
  5. Ilia Stambler, “International Longevity Day – October 1” (2013 – 2020). 
  1. Elie Metchnikoff, Sorok Let Iskania Razionalnogo Mirovozzrenia (Forty Years in Search of a Rational Worldview), 1914, in I.I. Metchnikoff, Academicheskoe Sobranie Sochineniy (Elie Metchnikoff. Academic Collected Works, Ed. G.S. Vasezky), Academia Medizinskikh Nauk SSSR (The USSR Academy of Medical Sciences), Moscow, 1954, vol. 13, pp. 9-22.