Nikolay Fyodorovich Gamaleya

Honorable Academician N.F. Gamaleya was a microbiologist, epidemiologist, hygienist and health professional.

On February 19, 1859, the twelfth child — Nikolay — was born in the family of retired Colonel Fyodor Mikhailovich Gamaleya. The family belonged to an ancient Ukrainian house of noble birth. One of its ancestors, Vysotsky, was an ambassador of Bogdan Khmelnitsky in Turkey, where he was dubbed “Gamaliya” meaning “mighty” in Turkish. It is how the family name originated.

The boy graduated from a private high school and entered the Division of Natural Sciences of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of the Novorossia University in Odessa. At that time, famous scientists O.O. Kovalevsky and I.I. Mechnikov lectured there. Bacteriology was included in the course of Botany led by L.S. Tsenkovsky prior to Gamaleya’s entrance. It was L.S. Tsenkovsky — Pasteur’s contemporary, who published the book titled Microorganisms in Russia in 1882 and shall, by right, be treated as a pioneer in microbiology in Russia. By the beginning of 1880s, in Russia, apart from Tsenkovsky, the following scientists specialized in microbiology: I.I. Mechnikov, V.I. Isayev, N.V. Sorokin, L.L. Heidenreich, M.P.Cherinov, M.S. Voronin, P.N. Diatroptov and, certainly, a number of their students and followers, whose names are now lost.

Gamaleya belonged to the second generation of microbiologists. At the same time, his contemporaries specialized in microbiology, specifically: S.N. Vinogradsky, G,N, Gabrichevsky, P.V. Tsiklinskaya, L.A. Tarasevich, V.L. Omelyansky, D.I. Ivanovsky, D.K. Zabolotny, I.G. Savchenko, V.I.Kedrovsky, whose contribution to the national science is highly respected. The role of N.F. Gamaleya was most adequately defined by Academician V.D. Timakov, who called him “one of the founders of the national microbiology”, which in no way diminishes the scientist’s contribution in development of this science. Nikolay Fyodorovich thought himself a microbiologist. Gamaleya used to say that he, like Pasteur, was only interested in the etiology of infections in terms of their prevention and treatment, to which he devoted his life.

While studying at the university, Gamaleya annually spent the “three very long” vacation months at the Strasbourg University, in the Hoppe-Seyler’s laboratory, studying biochemistry. In 1880, he graduated from the Novorossia University, awarded with the degree of Rerum Naturalis Doctor. However, Gamaleya immediately entered the 3rd year of the Military Medical Academy in Saint-Petersburg. In 1883, he graduated from the Academy as a General Practitioner and returned to Odessa. There he joined the City Hospital as a supernumerary resident physician at the neurological department headed by O.O. Mochutkovsky (who earlier demonstrated that the infection of camp fever and recurring fever is transmitted via blood). However, Gamaleya was not fascinated by neurology, but arranged a bacteriological laboratory in his flat instead, equipping it with a microscope, a thermostat, and a steam autoclave. At that time, I.I. Mechnikov addressed him with the request to culture anthrax bacilli to confirm his theory of phagocytosis in bacteria, and he also suggested culturing tubercle bacilli. They were supposed to be used for preparation of a vaccine similar to the anthrax vaccine.

The idea failed, but the teacher and his student grew closer to each other so that Mechnikov recommended Gamaleya for sending to Pasteur to study rabies vaccination. In February 1886, with the permission of Pasteur, Gamaleya arrived in Paris. Upon arrival, he quickly mastered the Pasteur’s method, but initially he did not get his support in terms of vaccination arrangement in Odessa. Pasteur thought that, taking into account the long-lasting incubation period of rabies, arrangement of an International Station in Paris will be a sufficient measure. The idea of vaccination in Odessa failed, but a sad occasion changed the situation — several Russian people brought to Pasteur from Smolensk died despite the shots. After detailed post-hoc analysis of disease incidence in vaccinated people, Gamaleya revealed the short duration of the incubation period in case of heavy bites and proved that, sometimes, the incubation period does not exceed 14 days. On the base of Gamaleya’s arguments, Pasteur agreed that “one Institute in the world” is not enough and assisted in establishment of the Pasteur’s Station in Odessa. It was the first sizable contribution of N.F. Gamaleya both in science and healthcare management. On June 12, 1886, the first Russian and second world Pasteur’s station was opened, and, on July 11, Nikolay Fyodorovich already vaccinated the first bitten patients. The station was initially situated in his flat at 14 Kanatnaya Str. I.I. Mechnikov was appointed its Director.

For a year (from summer of 1886 through autumn of 1887) Gamaleya studied, improved and analyzed the Pasteur’s method, maintaining continuous correspondence with him. This work in parallel with Pasteur (frequently, on Gamaleya’s initiative) resulted in changes in the vaccine preparation method and immunization schedule. Gamaleya tested more active drugs (more “poisonous brain”) safety on himself. After a year of successful work., Pasteur summoned Gamaleya to Paris to secure him against groundless attacks. Those attacks were caused by failures of vaccination performed, primarily, by other persons, rather than by Pasteur and his assistants. Gamaleya revealed that the main cause of failures was non-compliance with aseptic regulations. Apart from proving the safety and high efficacy of the method, Gamaleya gained insight on dumb rabies and demonstrated by means of post-hoc analysis of cases that this form had been recorded in France before vaccination was started and did not resulted from vaccination. He had to go to London to study failures on site and regain reputation of the vaccination and its founder.

When he returned to Odessa from the second trip to Pasteur, Gamaleya was absorbed by cholera that was a great concern for Russia at that time. Cholera studies and prevention is the field of the most prominent Gamaleya’s contribution in science and practice. However, he started with failure. By that time, Koch had already discovered the cholera bacillus. Gamaleya was absorbed by the idea of creating a killed cholera vaccine out of Koch's bacilli subcultured in a bird’s organism, and notified Pasteur, who summoned him and suggested repeating experiments in Paris. In Paris the cholera bacillus did not infect pigeons as it did in Odessa, and never turned to a bird vibrio virulent for humans, similar to Mechnikov’s vibrio discovered by Gamaleya, out of which he wanted to prepare a vaccine. After that failure, Pasteur said that Gamaleya did not fit in his Institute. Despite that painful insult, Nikolay Fyodorovich had much esteem towards Pasteur, treated him as his teacher and carried his portrait with an autograph note along.

At the beginning of 1890s, Gamaleya moved from Paris to Saint-Petersburg, to the Military Medical Academy, where he continued studying another cholera epidemic and defended dissertation on Etiology of Cholera in terms of Experimental Pathology, in which he demonstrated that the cholera bacillus has two poisons corresponding to now-familiar endotoxin-lipopolyssacharide and choleragen. Having returned to Odessa shortly afterwards, he established there (using his own funds!) the Institute of Bacteriology and Physiology on the base of the bacteriological station arranged by him 10 years before, using the basement of his house as well. The institute was engaged in diagnostics, training doctors, issue of medications (e.g., antidiphtherial antitoxic serum).

In parallel with other infections, Gamaleya continued studying cholera, another outbreak of which started at the beginning of the 20th century. Koch was right warning that cholera spread by water, but in Western Europe this way had already been shut off, as almost all cities had a sewerage system and a water supply system with a treated river water. German scientists stood up for the contact-domestic way of cholera transmission, not the water way. In Russia, the situation was different. At the beginning of the 20th century, even in the capital, effluents were discharged to the Neva river, wherefrom citizens took potable water. Besides, during epidemics, effluents from infectious diseases hospitals contributed to contamination of potable water. Therefore, the anti-cholera plan elaborated by Gamaleya for Russia, based on improvement of water supply and disposal systems in cities, was rejected by state medical professionals oriented at the European medicine. Nevertheless, the life itself forced the royal government to act in accordance with that plan, and it is still relevant.

Studying the outbreaks and their sources and being engaged in their elimination, Gamaleya made a very important observation. While studying the cholera epidemic in Baku and Irevani, he discovered that the hotbed of infection is Turkish baths with warm swimming pools, where some local residents spend the whole day. Thus, Nikolay Fyodorovich came to the conclusion of saprophytic existence of the cholera bacillus. Gamaleya thought that bacilli hibernated in baths to cause a new disease outbreak in spring. Later, he suspected bacterial growth in puddles and ditches in Odessa, after disinfection of which outbreaks in nearby houses discontinued. Gamaleya thought the epidemiological criterion of success of combating the disease incidence the most valid.  Moreover, he thought water bodies the main vibrio habitation, while a man — only an occasional host without any epidemiological relevance. Nowadays, saprophytic existence of V.choleraе eltor biovar currently widespread is recognized, but Gamaleya was the first to establish this fact on the base of a classical Koch’s bacillus.

The studies have been successfully continued nowadays within and under the auspices of the Gamaleya Research Center. Now, saprophytic foci of cholera are recognized as a significant element of the epidemic process. It is interesting that national scientists of the previous generation also opposed this point of view, which is evidenced by comments to postmortem Gamaleya’s Collected Edition, published in 1950–60s.

Simultaneously with cholera, at the beginning of the 20th century, in Odessa, Gamaleya had to deal with a sudden outbreak of plague. Using his epidemiologist’s experience and zoologist’s expertise, Gamaleya focused on the main source of plague – black rats brought to Odessa by ships from hot countries. Revealing the crucial role of the ship rats in plague epidemic development, Gamaleya defined the direction of the main attack – eradication of rats. First of all, 42 ships that arrived at the port were cleared from rats. In the city, in addition to special teams of municipal workers, Gamaleya formed volunteer troops for destruction of ship and city rats with subsequent corpse burning. Eradication of rats lasted for 12 days, and plague in Odessa subsided. Later on, in 1910, N.F. Gamaleya, an organizer by nature, worked out a system of measures to prevent plague import to port cities in the South of Russia, and it was adopted by the relevant authorities of the Don Cossack Host Province.

However, his favorite disease (according to Nikolay Fyodorovich) was tuberculosis. In Paris, driven from the Pasteur’s Institute, he jointly with Strauss developed a method of growing tubercle bacilli (while their growth is scarce and long-lasting) in large quantities to obtain tuberculin, and Koch used it momentarily (forgetting to name the method author). Subsequently, many times returning to this infection, specifically, during the World War II, Gamaleya developed a product consisting of two components — “micol” containing the tubercle bacillus antigens and producing an immunizing effect, and “tissuline” – an extract from tissues of immunized brown rats, producing a therapeutic effect. Finally, at the end of Gamaleya’s life, in 1948, the Ministry of Health of USSR issued an order to carry out extensive clinical trials of micol and tissuline for tuberculosis treatment. The trials were started successfully, but not completed. Completion was prevented by Gamaleya’s death, as well as by full slump in these medications due to the start of the victory march of antibiotics. Nowadays, when a contemporary population of M. tuberculosis became resistant to many drugs, perhaps, it makes sense to come around to the Gamaleya’s idea of tissue antiseptics, but at the up-to-date level.

Gamaleya was concerned about camp fever as much as about tuberculosis. At the beginning of the 20th century, this infection became specifically relevant in prisons that were overcrowded due to revolution events in the country. The causative agent had not been found yet, but it was known that it was transmitted via blood, evidently, through an insect bite. Gamaleya, as a biologist and epidemiologist, found the source insect. It was a clothes louse. Only a year after, in 1909, a Frenchman named Charles Nicolle confirmed this guess with a direct experiment. Coming to that conclusion, Gamaleya conducted multiple studies as to the methods of desinsection, which were subsequently used in our country during the wars and death by hunger. He introduced the term “disinsection” in the language.

According to Nikolay Fyodorovich, having celebrated his 50th anniversary, he significantly changed his activities: previously, he was primarily a doctor and natural scientist, and secondly — an organizer and teacher, but, starting from 1910, the latter activities prevailed. The case is that, by that time Gamaleya’s personal funds exhausted (till that time he had maintained the Institute in Odessa!) and he had to earn his living. For this purpose, he moved to Saint Petersburg, where he occupied the position of the Chief Bacteriologist in the Medical Board. At first, he had no laboratory, and he directed all his mighty energy to v work, including supervision over common lodging houses. He quickly found enthusiastic doctors and founded a semi-official organization — the Lodging-House Doctor Counsel. First of all, the got around to camp and recurring fevers and published an article about combating these diseases. That article was published in the magazine titled Hygiene and Sanitation, publishing of which was organized by Gamaleya in 1909.

In 1912, Nikolay Fyodorovich was appointed Director of the Jenner Vaccination Institute, which he headed till the end of 1920s. From the beginning of the World War I, the Institute focused on army procurement with detritus that was a pox vaccine. Detritus was required in huge quantities. So, the Institute scaled up the detritus output. For this purpose, Gamaleya proposed a new method – and detritus output gradually increased 15–20 times, and its quality changed. More resistant to heat detritus with a longer service life was obtained; detritus output increased; the role of the associated flora was studied and methods of its elimination were designed. however, the Gamaleya’s contribution was not limited by higher drug quality.

The case is that smallpox vaccination in our country was not obligatory, though cities and municipalities practiced it. Gamaleya thought it necessary to introduce comprehensive smallpox vaccination. But that was the time when revolution took place. In August 1918, he managed to obtain a corresponding permission of the Bolshevik Government in Petrograd, and in September, he implemented mass immunization in Petrograd and surrounding areas. On September 18, 1918, People’s Commissar for Health N.A. Semashko adopted the Regulation on Smallpox Vaccination, on the base of the Gamaleya’s report. In April 1919, Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars V.I. Lenin signed a corresponding decree. So, the Gamaleya’s role in this matter is undoubtful. Gamaleya headed the Smallpox Vaccination Institute till 1929, when Semashko summoned him away to Moscow to work as an “Assistant Director for Science” of the central Bacteriological Institute — the predecessor of the N.F. Gamaleya Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology. To the last, Nikolay Fyodorovich worked for this Institute.

Apart from already known infections, Gamaleya dealt with many other problems, and, during his long creative life, he made a lot of valuable observations, which, as it turned out subsequently, were not always understood or appreciated by his contemporaries, as they were made in advance of time. Thus, in 1888, he demonstrated that the causative agent of cattle plague penetrates though microporous filters that entrap bacteria.i.e. he revealed the virus. He noticed a strange phenomenon — spontaneous lysis of anthrax bacteria. He called it bacteriolysis, having studied the process morphologically and, after many years, he understood that he had revealed the phenomenon of bacteriophagy. But it was the d'Herelle’s priority already. In 1940s, Gamaleya almost realized the phenomenon of genetic transformation of colibacilli, confirming the existence of material heredity carrier — a gene.  Surprisingly, contemporaries called these studies the “triumph of ideas of Lysenko”, who denied, as you know, existence of such a carrier of hereditary characteristics. The work in the field of transformation was continued by Academician V.D. Timakov and other staff members, which resulted in formation of the soviet school of genetics and molecular biology of microorganisms.

Gamaleya is an author of more than 300 publications, among which his monograph and study guides played a great role. The first manual on bacteriology for doctors was published at the end of 1890s. In 1930-40s, many generations of future doctors studied microbiology by Gamaleya’s manuals. From 1938 to the end of his life, Nikolay Fyodorovich headed the Microbiology Division of the 2nd Moscow Medical Institute.

During the World War II, N.F. Gamaleya was evacuated to Kazakhstan, the settlement of Borovoye, where a tuberculosis resort was situated. There, he immediately organized a laboratory for studying tuberculosis and angenesis. He gave much value to hyaluronic acid, as an angenesis factor, and suggested using it for treatment of foci of tubercular decay and trophic ulcers. Despite the advanced age, he lectured to doctors, put down memories, worked at a new manual edition.

Only in his seventies, the authorities noticed Gamaleya – a distinguished scholar, doctor, organizer and teacher and awarded him with several honorable titles and awards.

In 1934, he was awarded the title of a Honored Scientist of RSFSR.

In 1939, he was elected a Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Science.

In 1940, he was elected a Honorary Member of the USSR Academy of Science.

In 1940, he was awarded an Order of Lenin.

In 1943, he was awarded the Stalin Prize (for multiple years of prominent work in the sphere of medical microbiology).

In 1945, he was awarded an Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

In 1945, he was elected a Full member of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences.

In 1949, he was awarded the second Order of Lenin.

However, the scientists awarded with many prizes could not help his son – Colonel of the medical Service Fyodor Nikolayevich Gamaleya, who arranged a sanitary-bacteriological laboratory in the Transbaikal Military District, which is still acting. In 1939, the Colonel was accused of the intention to contaminate the Amur river, condemned to execution, and narrowly escaped death.

Courageous Russian cultured person, scientist and teacher Gamaleya always fought for justice. He assisted in release from prison of Professor, eventually Academician of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences Lev Aleksandrovich Zilber. He was the first to sign the letter of distinguished scholars, addressed to Stalin. He insisted on awarding Zilber’s staff members, who actually participated in discovery of the tick-borne encephalitis virus but were forgotten, with the Stalin Prize. A month before his death, Honorable Academician Gamaleya sent to Honorable Academician Stalin two letters about the top-down revival of shameful phenomenon – antisemitism; but he received no answer.

On March 29, 1949, Nikolay Fyodorovich deceased. Several manuscripts remained unpublished, including the Viral Theory of Cancer.

N.F. Gamaleya’s students included Academicians of the USSR AMS V.D. Timakov and Z.V. Yermolyeva.

The last article written by Nikolay Fyodorovich contains the following words: “The most acute pleasure for a scientist is to be aware that his work serves interests of a man”.

The material is prepared by Honored Scientist of the Russian Federation,

Doctor of Medical Science, Professor N.N. Kostyukova.