Ilya Metchnikov, PhD

(1845—1916)

Orthomolecular Medicine Hall of Fame

Inducted 2009

“Death begins in the colon.” -Ilya Metchnikov

Born in 1845 in Ukraine, Ilya Metchnikov studied natural sciences at the University of Kharkov and pioneered research in immunology. In 1904, he became the deputy director at the Pasteur Institute laboratory in Paris from where he discovered the process of phagocytosis which demonstrated how specific white blood cells can engulf and destroy harmful bacteria in the body. His theories were radical and the “sophisticated” microbe hunters in the West –Pasteur, Behring and others–scorned the Russian and his humble theory.

Nevertheless, history vindicated Metchnikov’s brilliant theory and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1908.

Although references to the nutritional power of fermented foods date back thousands of years, Elie Metchnikov is regarded as the father of modern probiotics. He made a landmark observation that the regular consumption of lactic acid bacteria in fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, was associated with enhanced health and longevity in Bulgarian peasant populations. He linked this to the “Bulgarian bacillus” which was discovered by a 27-year old Bulgarian physician Stamen Grigorov, and he later demonstrated how healthy bacteria in yogurt helped digestion and improved the immune system. The reduction of the harmful bacteria coupled with the increase in good bacteria in the intestines appear to improve the immune system and reduce the burden on the cleansing organs such as the kidneys and liver.

The scientific rationale for the health benefit of lactic acid bacteria was provided in his book The Prolongation of Life published in 1907, in which he asserted that some of the bacterial organisms present in the large intestine were a source of toxic substances that contributed to illness and aging. This book also delved into the potential life-lengthening properties of lactic acid bacteria. He suggested that “The dependence of the intestinal microbes on the food makes it possible to adopt measures to modify the flora in our bodies and to replace the harmful microbes by useful microbes.” He wrote two more books: Immunity in Infectious Diseases (1905) and The Nature of Man (1938).

In recognition of Metchnikov’s place in the probiotic realm, the International Dairy Federation (IDF) created, in 2007, “The IDF Elie Metchnikov Prize” to recognize outstanding scientific discoveries in the fields of microbiology, biotechnology, nutrition and health with regard to fermented milk products.