Updated: Apr 18, 2020
After Dr. Metchnikoff, a long forgotten Russian scientist, discovered phagocytes, he plunged into researching human immunity, hopeful to find ways to extend lives. He was motivated by his own grim experiences with disease. When his first wife died from tuberculosis, despite his zealous efforts to save her, a grievous Metchnikoff took an overdose of opium, but lived. When his second wife, Olga, battled typhoid fever, he inoculated himself with a tick-borne disease to die with her—but they both lived. But having discovered the body’s natural defense system, Metchnikoff grew optimistic. “With the help of science,” he wrote, “man can correct the imperfections of his nature.”
As part of his immunity quest, Metchnikoff experimented on himself. During the 1892 cholera epidemic in France, he drank Cholera vibrio, a bacteria that causes the disease. Cholera vibrio had a peculiar modus operandi. Within the same community, some people contracted it while others seemed immune. An understanding of how such immunity develops could lead to a vaccine.
The cholera drink didn’t sicken Metchnikoff, so he let a volunteer from his lab repeat the test. When the first volunteer didn’t contract cholera either, Metchnikoff didn’t hesitate to accept an offer from a second one. To his horror, the young man fell ill and nearly died. When Metchnikoff took his experiments into the petri dish to find out what caused such a marked difference, he discovered that some microbes hindered the cholera growth while others stimulated it. He then proposed that the bacteria of the human intestinal flora played a part in disease prevention. And, he reasoned, if swallowing a pathogenic bacterial culture sickened you, then swallowing a beneficial one would make you healthier.
Therefore, he decided, the proper alteration of the intestinal flora could help battle diseases that had plagued humans for centuries.
Read more in the article The Man Who Drank Cholera and Launched the Yogurt Craze:
Ilya Metchnikoff laid the foundation for modern probiotics. Learn more about the importance of a healthy gut microbiome and quality probiotic and prebiotic supplementation.