Lina Solomonovna Stern (Shtern)
1878 – 1968
The eminent physiologist and biochemist Lina Solomonovna Stern was born on August 26, 1878 in the Kurland gubernia (now Latvia). Her father, a merchant who dealt in bread export, spent most of his time in Germany on business. Her mother, a homemaker, raised seven children, of whom Lina was the eldest.
The future scientist received her high school education in Libava (now Liepaia). In 1898 she was admitted to the medical faculty of the University of Geneva. At the invitation of Professor J. Prevost, she became an assistant in the Department of Physiology after graduating. Here, together with F. Batelli, she began research in the area of biological oxidation, which resulted in the discovery of the polyphenoloxidase enzyme.
Stern wrote her first scientific work, “Study of the So-called Internal Secretion of the Kidneys,” when she was still a student, in 1902; two years later she defended her dissertation “Physiological Study of Ureter Contractions.” In the years 1917–1925 she held the rank of professor and headed the Department of Physiological Chemistry of the Swiss university.
Nothing seemed to foreshadow drastic changes in her life and scientific career. But, as she writes in her Autobiography, living in Switzerland, she was acquainted with a number of political emigrants, though she never took part in political life. Although sympathetic towards the revolutionary movement in general, she was wholly immersed in scientific work. However, the imperialist war and its consequences made her ponder the issue: they sparked a protest against the existing capitalist system and, quite naturally, increased her sympathies with the revolutionary movement in Russia. After the October revolution, she began to think of moving her work to the Soviet Union, although she had no idea what life in the USSR was like. She felt that a new system and a new society would be created that would protect the world from the repetition of the horrors of war and from the injustice that so outraged her. Thus in 1924, when she received a letter from A. N. Bach asking her whether she would be willing to take the vacant position of head of Physiology Department at the Second Moscow State University (since 1930 the Second State Medical Institute), she unhesitatingly accepted the offer and left the wonderful living and working conditions of the University of Geneva with no regrets. During her time at the University of Geneva, she had published one hundred and fifty works.
Lina Solomonovna had a perfect knowledge of French, German, English and Italian. Before her emigration to the USSR, her works were published in French and German. By the time she came to the Soviet Union, bringing with her a wealth of clothes, shoes and jewelry that captured public attention, Stern was already an eminent scientist. She was sent as a delegate to the Twelfth International Physiology Congress in Stockholm in 1926. She proposed holding the next congress in the USSR, but academician I. P. Pavlov considered this proposal premature, believing that the country was not yet ready to welcome guests. Nevertheless, Lina Stern did not abandon her idea. Several years later, sharing her impressions about the congress in Rome, in which she also participated, she wrote: “We will organize the congress differently, because, as a revolutionary country, we may ignore traditions.” I. P. Pavlov called this attitude “ill-considered” and reproached Stern for “excessive revolutionary activity.”
Stern’s curriculum vitae is testimony to her vigor and her incredible energy and immense working ability. From 1926 to 1928 she headed the Department of Biochemistry at the Mechnikov Institute of Infectious Diseases; in 1929 and 1930 she served as head of the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry at the Biomedical Institute; from 1930 to 1936 she was head of the Department of Age Physiology at the Institute of Maternal and Child Welfare; and from 1935 to 1938, head of the Department of Physiological Chemistry at the All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine.
In 1929 Stern founded the Institute of Physiology under the auspices of the People’s Commissariat of Education and People’s Commissariat of Health in Moscow. In 1939 she was elected a full member of the Academy of Sciences, and the institute became part of the USSR Academy of Sciences. She headed the institute until 1948, when it was closed down. After a forced five-year interruption in scientific work because of her arrest and exile (see below), Stern headed the physiology laboratory of the Biophysics Institute of the USSR Academy of Science from 1954 till 1968.
In the 1930s, Stern was the editor-in-chief of the journal The Bulletin of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, member of the Presidium of the All-Union Society of Physiologists, Biochemists and Pharmacologists, deputy chair of the Moscow Society of Physiologists, member of the medical academic council of the People’s Commissariat of Health and member of the bureau of the academic council of the Neurosurgery Institute. In 1934, to mark thirty years of her scientific, educational and social work, she was awarded the title of “honored worker of science” and given a present unheard of at the time: an automobile. On June 1, 1935, Stern received the academic degree of Doctor of Biological Sciences without the defence of a dissertation. In 1944 she was elected a full member of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences.
The study of the blood-brain barrier and the blood-tissue barrier (BBB, BTB), Stern’s life work, began while she was in Geneva, in joint papers with E. Rotlin and R. Gaultier. In her report to the Geneva Medical Society on April 21, 1921, “Cerebrospinal fluid and its interaction with blood and nerve elements of the brain stem,” she advanced the following hypothesis: “… between blood, on the one hand, and cerebrospinal fluid, on the other, there is a special apparatus or mechanism, capable of performing a kind of screening of substances that are normally present in the blood or have entered it accidentally. We propose to call this hypothetical mechanism, which lets some substances through while slowing or completely blocking others, the Blood-Brain Barrier.” According to Stern, cerebrospinal fluid is the immediate nutritional environment of the brain, the source that provides the brain cells with substances necessary for their normal functioning. The blood-brain barrier is, therefore, a protective mechanism of the central nervous system.
Research that was begun in a laboratory in Geneva was successfully continued in Moscow, in the Institute of Physiology founded by Stern. Here, the study concentrated on the regulatory function of the BBB, its role during the direct administration of substances into the ventricles of the brain, the effect of acetylcholine, adrenalin and insulin on the central nervous system, the significance of the BBB for clinical practice, especially for the treatment of infectious diseases of the brain and traumatic shock. A series of experiments established “different effect on nervous centres depending on whether the substances were introduced into the blood or directly into the cerebrospinal fluid or into the brain or the spinal cord.”
In her report in 1923, Stern stated her views about the blood-tissue barrier. “Does this mechanism [the BBB – N. G.] exist only for nervous centres?” she asked. “Or are there similar mechanisms for other organs? Unwilling to prejudge the issue in terms of general physiology, we thought it possible to give a positive answer.” She formulated the nature of barrier mechanisms and functions of the body: they regulate and maintain the relative constancy of composition and properties of the immediate internal environment of all the organs, tissues and cells.
In her report at the conference on permeability (1936), Stern fleshed out the concept of the BTB: “The blood-tissue barrier is not only a morphological concept. It is a functional unit, or, to be more exact, a mechanism, which has its anatomical foundation – namely, walls of the capillaries. We must remember that it is a complex mechanism, and the penetration of substances through a capillary wall is only the first phase, only one part in the complex process of the passage of substances from the bloodstream to parenchymatous cells of the organ.”
Further study of the regulation of composition, physiological and physicochemical properties of the immediate environment of organs, tissues and cells, conducted by Stern and her school, is not only important theoretically, but has practical significance as well. In particular, it is important for the treatment of such central nervous system diseases as syphilis of the brain, tetanus, encephalitides and tuberculous meningitis. In fact, the BBB, which normally provides vitally necessary protection for the central nervous system from the harmful effect of substances that accidentally enter the bloodstream or are created in the process of exchange, may, in certain pathological conditions, have a negative role. Many medications (including antibiotics and treatment serums) do not penetrate into the nervous system because the BBB keeps them in the blood. In order to overcome the impermeability of barriers, Stern proposed a method of administering medications directly into the ventricles of the brain (suboccipital method), which proved its effectiveness in the treatment of the above-listed diseases.
L. A. Orbeli, academician-secretary of the Department of Biological Sciences of the USSR Academy of Sciences, spoke highly of Stern’s research. In his report at the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences on January 16, 1945, he outlined the theory of barriers developed by Stern and emphasized its great theoretical and practical significance. After Stern returned from her exile in Kazakhstan, it was Orbeli that she turned to for support. Although Orbeli was himself out of favour with the authorities in the early 1950s, he helped Lina Stern.
The method of countershock treatment of heart fibrillation caused by electric trauma, developed by Stern, was also of great practical significance. The study of the effect of nuclear radiation on BBB permeability determined that the change in permeability is one of earlier reactions of a living organism to the effect of ionizing radiation. This discovery helped clarify the pathogenesis of radiation sickness.
Despite the acknowledgement of her colleagues, abroad as well as at home, and government awards (in 1943 she was awarded the Stalin Prize for outstanding achievement in the research of the blood-brain barrier; in the next two years she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour and the Order of the Red Star), the wave of repressions in the 1940s did not pass Stern by.
As often happened at the time, the persecution began with a newspaper article. In the summer of 1947, an article by Bernshtein, chair of the Biochemistry Department of the Ivanovo Medical Institute, appeared in the Meditzinsky rabotnik newspaper. In this article he launched a scathing and totally unfounded attack on the research of the blood-brain barrier. This was an authorized signal to start persecution. In May 1948 the Institute of Physiology headed by Stern was closed down, ostensibly for “reorganization purposes.” At the same time, the Bekhterev Institute of Brain Research in Leningrad was dismantled. In their stead the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences Institute of Physiology of the Central Nervous System was created, headed by K. M. Bykov. In the autumn of the same year, Stern was “unmasked” as an “anti-Pavlovian” at the session of the Moscow Society of Physiologists. In 1949 she was accused of being a member of a Zionist organization and arrested.
During World War II, Lina Stern was a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee organized at the initiative of the Soviet Union in order to mobilize world Jewish support for the USSR’s war effort against Nazi Germany. Composed of Jewish public figures and intellectuals, the Committee was disbanded after the war and its chairman, Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered in January 1948. In 1952 its leading members were tried in secret and all except Stern were executed on August 12, 1952.
In her autobiography, dated April 19, 1954, Stern writes very little about this period of her life: “In 1949, I was arrested by the MGB, and in the August of 1952 [when her fellow members in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were executed] exiled to Jambul for five years. In 1953, I was freed and returned to Moscow. When I came to Moscow, I was summoned to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and told that I had been wrongfully arrested.” By the decree of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences of September 1, 1953, Lina Solomonovna was reinstated in the Academy. In the exact words of the decree, she was “[t]o count as a full member of the USSR Academy of Sciences since April 1, 1953. To pay Academician Stern the salary for the title of the full member of the Academy since April 1953.”
With her typical vigour, “Academician Stern” set to work: she put in order the few scattered manuscripts that remained from her almost completely destroyed science archive, read Soviet and foreign specialized literature published over the previous six years and continued her experimental studies. But first she insisted that, as the head of the physiology laboratory of the Institute of Biophysics, she be provided with facilities, equipment and adequate staff. The results of her new research had great theoretical and practical significance for medicine and agriculture (providing a solution to the problems connected with ageing and malignant growth of cells). They were the basis of reports that Stern read at the Eighth All-Union Congress of Physiologists (1955) and the All-Union Technical-Scientific Conference (1957). The title of the first report was “The Significance of Immediate Nutritional Environment of Organs and the Role of Blood-Tissue Barriers, in Particular, the BBB, in Neurohumoral Regulation and Coordination of Body Functions”; the second report was titled “The Effect of Ionizing Radiation on Factors Determining the Composition and Properties of the Immediate Nutritional Environment of Organs and Tissues of Animal Body.”
Five national meetings were held between 1960 and 1970 on the issue of blood-tissue barriers. They were organized by the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Physiology of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Academicians O. G. Gazenko, V. V. Parin, N. M. Sisakyan, a corresponding member of the Academy N. I. Graschenkov and staff members of institutes of biology all participated. Today, research into the role of barrier functions of the body is being conducted by scientists in many countries and literature on this subject numbers several thousand titles.
Lina Solomonovna Stern died on March 7, 1968. To the end of her days, she served science; she never lost the ideals of her youth, living by these ideals till her last breath.
Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences, stock 411, op. 3, d. 281; Stern, L. S. “The Conclusions of the Fifteenth International Congress of Physiologists in Rome.” Marxist-Leninist Natural Science (1932): 21; Idem. “The Immediate Nutritional Environment of Organs and Tissues.” In Selected Works. Moscow: 1960; Herald of Archives of Armenia 1982, No. 1; Orbeli, L. A. Scientific Heritage. Moscow: 1997; Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences, stock 411, op. 3, d. 281.