May 01, 2005

Ilya Mechnikov: Scientist from Birth

If it could be said that someone is a scientist from birth, this ought to be said of Ilya Mechnikov, the embryologist, bacteriologist and immunologist. In 1908, nearly at the end of his life, he became the second Russian to be awarded the Nobel Prize (Ivan Pavlov was the first).

Born on May 15, 1845, in the Ukrainian village of Ivanovka, Mechnikov was the youngest in a family of five children. His parents were a strange couple. His father Ilya, before moving to Ivanovka, had served as an officer in St. Petersburg’s Emperor’s Guards, and he gambled away most of his wife’s dowry and their family belongings. Mechnikov’s mother, Emilia Nevakhovich, the daughter of the rich Jewish writer Lev Nevakhovich, always supported her youngest son’s desire to become a scientist. As a child, young Ilya would often lecture his siblings on the natural sciences, and an article he wrote at 16, criticizing his geology textbook, was published in a Moscow magazine.

Mechnikov was such an industrious student, that he graduated from Kharkov University – where he studied physics and mathematics – in two years instead of the usual four. At 25, he became the university’s youngest professor. A firm supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Mechnikov’s first discovery was based on that theory, concluding that the anatomy of highly-organized animals had much in common with the anatomy of less-organized animals (e.g. worms and simple invertebrates), from whom they had descended.

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