METCHNIKOFF, Elie. Études sur la nature humaine. Essai de philosophie optimiste. Paris: L. Barnéoud & Cie for Masson & Cie, 1903.

Octavo (219 x 132mm), pp. [6 (half-title, verso blank, title, verso blank, dedication, verso blank)], II (preface), 399, [1 (blank)]. 20 illustrations in the text, 5 full-page. (A few light marks.) Contemporary [?]French roan-backed marbled boards, red cloth tips, spine gilt in compartments, gilt leather lettering-piece in one, marbled endpapers, all edges sprinkled red. (Spine slightly faded, extremities a little rubbed and bumped, upper hinge partially cracked). A very good copy in a contemporary binding.

First edition. The Russian zoologist and pathologist Metchnikoff (1845-1916), is best known for his pathological work in the second half of his life, following his discovery in 1882 of the phenomenon of phagocytosis at the private laboratory he had established in Messina. On his return to Russia he was appointed head of the newly-established bacteriological institute in Odessa, a position he resigned in 1887, due to difficulties at the institute. Searching for a new home, Metchnikoff travelled to Paris, where his friend and scientific associate Louis Pasteur offered him a position at the newly-founded Institut Pasteur, and the Metchnikoff family moved permanently to Paris in 1888, where they remained. ‘Metchnikoff quickly became a revered member of the small circle of the Institute, where friendships and working relationships were close. He began to attract students to his laboratory and set most of them to work answering the various objections to the theory of phagocytosis, elucidating ways in which the white blood cells were attracted to and ingested bacteria, or determining how, in general, the mechanism of immunity worked. Among his many talented students was Bordet, who in 1919 received the Nobel Prize for his work on complement fixation’ (DSB IX, p. 334). Metchnikoff’s continued researches into immunity culminated in his comprehensive L’immunité dans les maladies infectieuses (1901), ‘a magnificent review of the entire field of both comparative and human immunology’ (loc. cit.) and in 1908 Metchnikoff and Paul Ehrlich were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on immunity.

In Paris, Metchnikoff enjoyed some of the happiest years of his life, in a stable and supportive environment that was conducive to a more positive spirit, and the pessimism that had marked his earlier years (which had included two attempts to take his own life), was replaced by a more optimistic philosophical position. ‘In a series of books and lectures between 1903 and 1910 Metchnikoff developed his thoughts on the prolongation of life. He stressed proper hygienic and dietary rules. His idea of orthobiosis, or right living, included careful attention to the flora of the intestinal canal. He believed that intestinal putrefaction was harmful and that the introduction of lactic-acid bacilli, as in yogurt, accounted for the longevity of the Bulgars. He introduced sour milk into his own diet and thought that his health improved’ (op. cit., pp. 334-335).

The first of these books was Études sur la nature humaine, which is divided into three parts: the first, ‘Les désharmonies de la nature humaine’ discusses pathological failures in both animals and humans, the second discusses the efforts of philosophical and theological systems to ameliorate the problems of aging and mortality, and the third outlines the defences against illness, aging, and death that science can provide. Metchnikoff – who felt that the philosophical systems of the nineteenth century offered little besides pessimism and that only science could offer a credible solution – concluded his study with the words, ‘[s]i un idéal capable de réunir les hommes dans une sorte de religion de l’avenir est possible, il ne peut être basé que sur des principes scientifiques. Et s’il est vrai, comme on l’affirme souvent, qu’il est impossible de vivre sans foi, celle-ci ne pourra être que la foi dans la puissance de la science’ (p. 392).

This work contains the first use in a book of the word ‘gérontologie’, which Metchnikoff coined, on p. 386, and the Oxford English Dictionary also cites the English translation as the first use of ‘gerontology’ in English.

Cf. Waller 19978 (2nd ed., Paris: 1904).


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