Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Журналист, писатель, бард. Обладатель «Бриллиантовой совы» интеллектуальной игры «Что? Где? Когда?»
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ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Nikolay Gamaleya from Odessa (Ukraine) – one of the founders of the national microbiology and epidemiology

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Nikolay Gamaleya from Odessa (Ukraine) – one of the founders of the national microbiology and epidemiology
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Connoisseurs of literature and history will easily recall this surname both in its Ukrainian version – Gamaliya – and in Russian one – Gamaleya. The linguistic tradition is an inert matter: after all, both Russians and Ukrainians call the first Nobel laureate in physics Rentgen, although he is Röntgen with an emphasis on the first syllable.

For those who know Shevchenko well, this is not only a surname – it is the title of a poem. According to its text, this is the name of the brave leader in the sea campaign of the Zaporizhia Cossacks, who frees the captured Cossacks from Turkish slavery by storming the city of Scutari.

While getting familiarized with the hero of this article, one journalist turned to historians with a question: did the hero of the poem have a real archetype? They just smiled and showed him a note to one of the editions of the poem, which he had already seen – no one knows such a historical person.

But a more thorough search still found an associate of Khmelnytsky named Grigory Vysotsky. Khmelnytsky sent him with a mission to Istanbul, and there the Turks, admiring his military prowess, gave him the nickname Gamaleya, which means Mighty in Turkish.




The one we will now talk about is the descendant of this particular Gamaleya. His grandfather, Mikhail Leontyevich, abandoned the military path of his ancestors and became a doctor. Moreover, he was an outstanding doctor: back in 1789 he wrote a monograph on anthrax, which was even translated into German.

His son, a military officer who rose to the rank of colonel, a participant in the Patriotic War of 1812, moved to Odessa after retirement, headed the commercial court there, married Caroline Dox, and began to augment the family – Nikolay Gamaleya would turn out to be his twelfth child.

The officer father raised him, like all other children, with military severity. All his kids had to get up at five in the morning, and in addition to the upper secondary school education, they had to independently study the sciences, especially languages – English, French, German, and Latin.

As a child, he showed a penchant for the natural sciences. One of his favorite books was Michael Faraday’s The Chemical History of the Candle, a brilliant lecture by the great scientist on some of the laws of physics, written for children and adolescents. I found it, read it, and advise you to read it too!




After graduating from the upper secondary school, Nikolay, of course, continued his studies. Novorossiysk University, located in this city, has become a natural choice for the Odessa citizen. He entered the natural sciences department – it was in the natural sciences that the foundations were shaken at the end of the 19th century.

When he was in his sophomore year, his father passed away. It was truly distressing: the relationship with his father was especially close for him. But he does not reduce the intensity of his studies, studying even on vacation – for this he goes to the University of Strasbourg to master biochemistry.

In France, he completed his first scientific work – on the effect of oxygen on the processes of fermentation and decay. He had to urgently return to Odessa to his sick mother, but his chief, Professor Hoppe-Seyler, finished the work and published it, not forgetting to mention his student.

After graduating from the university, he wanted to improve his knowledge of medicine at the best educational institution of the then Russia in this specialty – the St. Petersburg Military Medical Academy. He was immediately enrolled in the third year and received a purely medical education.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Nikolay Gamaleya from Odessa (Ukraine) – one of the founders of the national microbiology and epidemiology
Nikolay Fedorovich Gamaleya. Source: odessa-memory.info




After working a little at the Odessa hospital of Osip Mochutkovsky, he won the competition for a business trip to Paris. Mechnikov himself, who managed to work with him on bacteriology, recommends him to the Pasteur Institute, the hotbed of brilliant minds and great ideas.

Pasteur appreciated the new employee quite highly. An almost unthinkable thing happened: Pasteur liked him so much that he offered to enroll a talented young Odessa native in the staff of the leading employees of his new institute, along with such names as Roux and Duclaux.

Gamaleya sincerely thanked for the trust and the prospect of a brilliant scientific career, but said: “Dear teacher, in my homeland thousands of people die from infectious diseases every year – they are waiting for me there, so this is where I belong…”. However, they still had a lot of joint work.

Throughout the year, together with Pasteur, he studied a deadly disease, on which the great Pasteur got a handle at that time – rabies. He studied both the method of preparing the vaccine and the method of its application. But it was precisely on this issue that he and Pasteur got disagreements.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Nikolay Gamaleya from Odessa (Ukraine) – one of the founders of the national microbiology and epidemiology
Albert Edelfelt. Louis Pasteur at his laboratory. 1885




This may seem strange now, but Pasteur was convinced that rabies should not be vaccinated anywhere except at the Pasteur Institute. He believed that the preparation of a vaccine was very difficult and that in any other place it could be done incorrectly and discredit the method.

In addition, Pasteur was sure that the time after the bite, after which the patient received the vaccine, is virtually unimportant and plays no meaningful role. I do not even understand this: if a person, having become infected, got sick and died, is it not clear that it was necessary to vaccinate him earlier?

Gamaleya was of a different opinion. He rightly thought that a single vaccination station would not help people all over the world. Of the 19 Russian peasants bitten by a rabid wolf, three could not be saved. Gamaleya was convinced that the reason was late vaccination.

In addition, he made a completely correct guess that the rabid wolf brings in more virus than the rabid dog, so in this case the dosage must be changed. And in the end, he was able to convince Pasteur – the latter allowed opening another vaccination center, entrusting it to Gamaleya.

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Gamaleya had no particular doubts on the city to open this station – of course, in his native Odessa! It turned out to be not only the first in Russia, but also the second location in the world in general where one could be vaccinated against rabies. The station building has survived to this day and has a memorial plate on it.

The bacteriological center was opened on July 11, 1886, and in 3 years more than 1,500 people were saved there from rabies. People came for the vaccination not only from the Russian Empire, but also from Austro-Hungary, Turkey, and other neighboring countries –Paris was located farther than this place.

Gamaleya, together with his talented assistant Yakov Bardakh, did a lot to promote the effectiveness of the entire rabies vaccination procedure. Initially, the mortality rate after vaccination was about 2.5%. After the improvements they made, it fell to 0.61%.

Like any new and startling business, the vaccination gave rise to a number of doubts, often quite unjustified, but requiring refutation. Gamaleya dispelled one of them: in 1886 he vaccinated a healthy person with his vaccine, and there was no harm found. This man, of course, was himself.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Nikolay Gamaleya from Odessa (Ukraine) – one of the founders of the national microbiology and epidemiology
Bacteriological station in Odessa. Source: odessa-memory.info




Meanwhile, Pasteur came in for flak. Some argued that people who had been cured by his vaccine would not have gotten sick anyway (and why did almost 100% of the unvaccinated ones die?). Opponents of vivisection also execrated him: they pitied the rabbits needed to get the vaccine.

The hatred for Pasteur from his less talented colleagues (everything is so familiar…) reached the point that he was booed at a meeting of the Paris Medical Academy. After that, a special commission was formed in England, headed by Professor Paget, to investigate the issue.

With the experience of the Odessa bacteriological center, accumulated at that time, and the convincing statistics of its successful vaccinations, Gamaleya left for England, where he spoke at a meeting of the commission, organizing a confident defense of the innovative ideas of Pasteur and bacteriologists.

For about five years, Gamaleya shuttled between Odessa and Paris, continuing to work with Pasteur to improve the quality of the vaccination procedure. As a result, vaccination became a reliable protection against rabies, and Pasteur stations began to open around the world.




Odessa, as a port city, always had to be on the alert, being wary of diseases brought by the sea – including the most dangerous ones. Gamaleya’s doctoral dissertation The etiology of cholera from the point of view of experimental pathology was devoted to this problem as well.

In 1901-1902 Odessa was visited by an even more terrible guest – the plague. Gamaleya took the lead in the fight against it and first of all correctly identified its source – black rats that sailed to the Odessa port along with ships from distant warm countries, carrying the infection.

This correct conclusion prompted a method for combating – deratization. Rats were completely exterminated on 42 ships that made the local harbor. Special detachments of doctors and volunteers expunged all rats in the port and the city and burned rat corpses.

The extermination of rats lasted 12 days, and as a result, the outbreak of the plague in Odessa stopped. This was a huge success, since the plague is a highly contagious infection, most often deadly, persistent, and tenacious at that time. Many people could have suffered, but the measures taken by Gamaleya saved them.




In 1912, Gamaleya moved to St. Petersburg, where he became the head of the local Jenner Smallpox Vaccination Institute. With the start of the First World War, there appeared a lack of detritus for vaccinations. The latter were required for the army – and these were millions of doses.

Gamaleya found a solution: he developed a new, more storage-resistant drug, the production of which was increased by more than 20 times in a short time. With the same drug they made a general vaccination against smallpox in 1918 in St. Petersburg.

According to the decree of April 10, 1919, signed by Lenin, the whole country had to be vaccinated against smallpox. This would not have been possible without a vaccine produced according to the methods developed by Gamaleya. Now, as you know, smallpox has disappeared from the face of the Earth – vaccinations have exterminated it.

His participation in the fight against the “trench disease” – typhus – was also significant. Back in 1908, it was he who was the first to prove that lice transmit this disease to people. By the way, the term “disinsectization” was also introduced into medicine by him. He also worked on methods of preparing a vaccine against the flea-borne typhus.

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Nikolay Gamaleya from Odessa (Ukraine) – one of the founders of the national microbiology and epidemiology
N.F. Gamaleya (in the center) on the presidium of the X All-Union Congress of Bacteriologists, Epidemiologists, and Sanitary Physicians in Odessa. 1926. Source: odessa-memory.info




Since 1930, he worked in Moscow, holding a number of high positions – in particular, for almost thirty years he was a professor at the Department of Microbiology at the 2nd Moscow Medical Institute. There was also enough administration – but the main thing, of course, was science.

He was involved in the fight against many diseases, but was especially absorbed with the issues of treatment of tuberculosis, which, before the invention of antibiotics, was one of the most difficult problems in medicine. He even called its pathogen, Koch’s bacillus, “my favorite microbe.”

During the war, he proposed a new drug for the treatment of tuberculosis, consisting of two components: “Mycola”, which is characterized by an immunizing effect, and “Tissulin”, a tissue extract from immunized rats that has a therapeutic effect.

The trials were successfully started, but not completed – antibiotics appeared, promising quick success. Now, when tuberculosis has acquired resistance to them, scientists are again putting forward the ideas of “tissue antiseptics”, similar to Gamaleya’s ones – perhaps they will work…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Nikolay Gamaleya from Odessa (Ukraine) – one of the founders of the national microbiology and epidemiology
Portrait of Academician N.F. Gamaleya by P. Korin, 1941. State Tretyakov Gallery. Source: odessa-memory.info




Gamaleya’s scientific heritage was enormous: more than 350 scientific papers and hundreds of popular articles. He was a laureate of the State Prize, academician of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and honored worker of science and technology. He even became an honorary academician of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR – there were only three of them, and the third one was Stalin himself.

But the vicissitudes of life in the USSR of those years did not pass him by either. In 1938, his son Fedor, a military doctor, was accused of planning to launch dangerous microbes into the Amur River and sentenced to death. Fortunately, after the fall of Yezhov, he was released, but, of course, had to leave the army.

Gamaleya fought for the release from prison of the famous microbiologist Lev Zilber, a researcher of encephalitis. Together with scientists Burdenko, Orbeli, Engelgardt, and Yermolyeva, Gamaleya signed a letter to Stalin, which spoke of Zilber’s innocence.

And in February 1949 he sent two letters to Stalin, in which he directly accused the country’s leadership of imposing state anti-Semitism “from the top”. He did not receive an answer – he did not have time for that because died soon, having attained the age of 90 years. Maybe it’s good that they didn’t answer him…

ROOTS AND WINGS with Boris Burda: Nikolay Gamaleya from Odessa (Ukraine) – one of the founders of the national microbiology and epidemiology
Grave of N.F. Gamaleya at the Novodevichy cemetery. Source: wikipedia.org




Gamaleya’s enormous merits were rewarded a lot even during his lifetime. As already mentioned, he was awarded the State Prize of the II degree – in the harsh military year of 1943, when awards were hardly sported away. He received both the Order of the Red Banner and two Lenin Orders. 

The Central Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, which he had headed from 1930 to 1938, bears his name. There are streets of Gamaleya in the Russian cities of Moscow and Tomsk, Kazakh Taraz (formerly Dzhambul), and, of course, in Ukrainian cities – Odessa and Sumy.

Another monument to Gamaleya is a multitude of his students, a whole galaxy of microbiologists, who, with their works and discoveries, glorified not only their names, but also the name of their teacher. The significance of their work is only growing now, when epidemics continue to threaten humanity.

In general, I think that the Khmelnytsky diplomat, who received the honorary nickname Gamaleya from the Turks, would be glad on the context in which we now perceive the name of his descendant in God knows which degree of relationship. But I would hardly have thought that it was not on his merits – rather the opposite… What do you think?

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