Metamorphosis of a collection: a hundred years in the history of the collection of Ilya Mechnikov

One of the most interesting and valuable collections at the Pauls Stradiņš Medicine History Museum in Riga is the collection of Ilya Mechnikov (1845—1916), who established the theory of phagocytosis and studied immunology. The story of the collection is special as well; at that, its fate can be described as symptomatic. Like many other collections, initially created as a single cohesive whole, it is now stored in different locations in a number of countries, a testimony to the laws of transience and ultimate imperishability of collections and libraries. All in all, destiny has been kind to the Mechnikov collection: unlike the products of many other collectors’ work, although split up, it has nevertheless been preserved and can be accessed by the public and researchers. 

In 1916, after Mechnikov’s death, his second wife, Olga Mechnikova (born Belokopytova; 1858—1944), tried to preserve her husband’s scientific heritage and ensure that it would be available to scholars and other interested parties. The Pauls Stradiņš Museum has held the collection since 1975, and it was first displayed to the public in 1982. 

Mechnikov’s widow carefully curated his articles, lectures, research protocols, and extensive correspondence with distinguished scholars and other individuals. This far-sighted work preserved valuable evidence of the life of the famous scientist, and also, to a certain extent, reflected the development of the natural sciences during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. 

Firstly, Olga offered the materials to the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where her late husband spent the last 29 years of his life and where he was buried. The historical building of the institute, alas, was not appropriate for the composition, and the director and Mechnikov’s friend, Emile Roux (1853—1933), suggested that it should be housed in a new building which was not finished at that time. However, the construction took longer than expected.

It appears that, for this very reason, Olga Mechnikova contacted one of her late husband’s students and a good friend, Lev Tarasevich (1868—1929), who suggested transporting the collection to his Institute of Experimental Therapy and Control of Serums and Vaccines in Moscow, where a museum could be established based on the collection. Part of the collection was transported from Paris to Moscow in August 1926, but the rest of it remained with Olga until 1935, when further items were contributed to the museum in Moscow. She was the curator of the first exhibition, and in September 22, 1926, the scientific council of the State Institute for the People’s Welfare received the unusual dedication statement of Mrs Mechnikova, in which she wrote: “I think that the collected materials can serve the cultural sector of the history of biology and medicine for half a century to study the working processes of Ilya Mechnikov and remember him as a man who devoted all his life to science”. She also expressed the desire that her late husband’s materials should be kept together, that his correspondence should not be published for the time being, and that the work should begin with a compendium of Mechnikov’s papers. The museum was opened the next day, and Health Commissar Nikolai Semashko (1874—1949) invited Olga Mechnikova to become the honorary patroness of the institution. Her partnership with the museum was interrupted by World War II. 

Initially the collection consisted of four large groups of materials. The first included print materials which Mechnikov released in various languages, as well as books about him, the works of otherscientists, fiction and notes. The second group consisted of manuscripts and documents, including Mechnikov’s notebooks from 1861 onwards, research protocols beginning in 1884, texts of his lectures, delivered papers, records of expeditions to the steppes of Kalmykia, observations of his own illnesses, correspondence, diplomas, greetings, etc. The third group was iconographic; it included paintings, portraits, photographs, and illustrations for publications. The fourth and final group contained objects which Mechnikov owned — silver dishes, an inkwell, a pen, work instruments, a seal, 26 Petri dishes with samples of the scientist’s hair, as well as orders and medals which he had received during his lifetime.

A fragment of the display of I. I. Mechnikov Museum at the Gamaleya Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology. Moscow, December 1967. Unknown photographer. MHM holdings.

The museum was split into two parts in 1950, already following the death of the scientist’s spouse Olga. The manuscripts and documents were transferred to the archive of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, while his personal effects, publications, paintings and photographs became the foundation for a new memorial museum at the Mechnikov Institute for the Scientific Study of Serums and Vaccines near Moscow (in Petrovo-Dalneye). The valuable collection remained there until 1965, when it was transferred to the History Department of the Gamaleya Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology in the USSR Academy of Medical Science. 

Jury Ivanovich Milenushkin (1908—1975), a biologist and historian, at that time the head of the cabinet of history of microbiology and epidemiology, worked to preserve and attribute Mechnikov‘s legacy, as well as to introduce it into scientific use. In his letter dated September 28, 1965, he shared his plans with E. D. Penryaev (1913—1987), a scientist, army physician and a bibliophile: «I have enormous changes at the institute. The department on Mechnikov [legacy] research from the Mechnikov Institute has been entirely (“lock, stock and barrel) handed down to me. I have received two more rooms, but in another building. It seems as if long-standing desires are coming true. I can have a staff and initiate work. Many thousands of daydreamings!.. This brightens up my mental life and braces me up. Next year, we are expected to move into a new building. It is ready, and its furnishing will be a tremendous undertaking, which they are going to finish in the summer of 1966 when the International Congress of microbiologists hold in Moscow.» 

But Milenushkin’s good intentions were not supported by the administration of the Institute. Annual reports from the department show that the collection was endangered: there was no room for it, and it did not have a curator. In 1975 the presidium of the academy voted to transfer the collection, except for the manuscripts and documents, to the Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine in Riga in order to preserve the collection and ensure its accessibility. Essentially, the legacy of the great scientist was divided for a third time. Milenushkin was strongly disappointed that the “Mechnikov museum, which he (Milenushkin) had gathered together over 30 years of his life, by the order of Baroyan, has been transferred to the Museum of the Hist[ory] of Medicine in Riga!”, and that V. D. Timakov (1905—1977), a microbiologist, the fifth President of the USSR Academy of Medical Science, and Milenushkin’s “hunt-friend”, did not support him and did not show reluctance against the transfer of the collection of Mechnikov museum to Riga. 

The received collection included books, published by Mechnikov, many of them annotated with the author’s notes, as well as five volumes of scholarly papers, published between 1865 and 1916 and, in many cases, dedicated by the author to his wife. Some of the volumes are in ornate covers with the initials of Olga or Ilya Mechnikov. There are also books of fiction, popular magazines from that time, notes, and books about the history of art.

A fragment of the exhibition devoted to I.I. Mechnikov at the Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine. Photo: L. Balodis. 2003. MHM holdings

The iconographic section of the collection contains valuable paintings by Olga Mechnikova, who was an artist — portraits of her husband, a self-portrait, and landscapes (12 canvases in all). The museum also has an outstanding portrait of Ilya Menchikov that was painted by his wife’s teacher, Eugene Carriere (1849—1906), as well as two water colour miniature portraits of the scientist’s parents by artist Michael Vishnevecki (1801—1871).

Of particular value are Mechnikov’s orders and medals (22 honours are presented in the collection), including the Nobel Prize which he and Paul Ehrlich (1854—1915) received in 1908 for their study of immunology. There is also the Godfrey Copley (1653—1709) Medal from the Royal Society of London, three orders of the Legion of Honour (the class of Knight, Officer and Commander), the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun, etc.

The specialists from Pauls Stradiņš Medicine History Museum processed and restored all of the exhibits. They became a part of the Latvian national collection and initially were displayed only at exhibitions of new items. But since 1982 the museum has opened a separate memorial hall for Mechnikov and in 2014 it was extended to the new exhibition devoted to the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winners. Mechnikov’s Nobel Prize medal is stored in Riga; it is the only Nobel Prize medal in Latvia. As for the Nobel Prize diploma, its location is the Pasteur Institute in Paris. A separate blog entry dedicated to it will be posted later this year.

The Ilya Mechnikov memorial collection, transferred to Riga, has been scientifically attributed, registered and accepted for permanent storage in the State Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine and has been subsequently displayed in a separate room in the frame of exhibition of late nineteenth — early twentieth century medicine. Thus, all museum visitors have access to the collection, and researchers can consult materials from the museum storage, which are not part of the permanent exhibition. The interior decoration objects of the late nineteenth century were used to reconstruct the aesthetics of the time. Maija Grīnfelde, a Latvian artist, wove a large-scale woollen-linen tapestry (220×270 cm) depicting L. Pasteur, I. Mechnikov and E. Roux. 

After 30 years of continuous exhibition, the Mechnikov memorial room has been broadened thematically with the addition of information on Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine. 

At the present time, the material legacy of Ilya Mechnikov is stored in various institutions across Europe, including, apart from the Pauls Stradiņš Medicine History Museum in Riga, the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and separate governmental agencies of the Ukraine and Russia. The memorial collection in Riga is the most significant one and practically the only one that is part of the scientific circulation and remains available to the general public. The same can be said about his personal archive, which is stored in the Archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and has been studied in detail. Mechnikov’s handwritten legacy (manuscripts of academic papers, rough copies, descriptions of experiments, correspondence), has been made available for researchers in the edition of 1960 «Рукописные материалы И. И. Мечникова» [«I.Mechnikov’s Manuscript Materials»].

The development of the collections presenting Ilya Mechnikov’s legacy is under way. New details of his biography have been published in the book «Immunity: How Elie Metchnikoff Changed the Course of Modern Medicine»

by L. Vikhanski (2016). She managed to obtain access to the documents and personal belongings of Ilya Ilyich, which are held in a deposit box at the Credit Lyonnais Bank in Paris and having been placed there by Jacques Saada, a supposed descendant of Mechnikov. Saada, in turn, bequeathed these cherished materials concerning Mechnikov’s life, to a Latvian citizen, Ērika Šmeļkova. In October 2018, she donated autographed photographs of Mechnikov to the Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine in Riga. Upon her receipt of the inheritance, she also plans to donate to the Museum the documents and personal belongings mentioned above and kept at the Bank in France. 

Cooperation between all parties that preserve the legacy of Ilya Mechnikov is necessary to generalize and catalogue the collection. One means of presenting the material could be a travelling international exhibition, showing Ilya Mechnikov not as the “iconised” scientist but as a philanthropic person imbued with creative insight tempered by his human foibles.

Such is the story of the collection assembled by the Nobel Prize laureate Ilya Mechnikov, the most significant part of which is stored in Riga, accessible to museum-goers and researchers alike.

Published: January, 2021

Professor Juris Salaks

Professor Juris Salaks

Rīga Stradiņš University


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