Leon Cienkowski – founder of Kharkiv microbiology

Kharkiv is a modern, innovative scientific and educational center, a city of youth. It is no secret for every Ukrainian where one needs to go to get a high-quality education or necessary knowledge. But few are interested in why Kharkiv is in this regard the first among other cities and thanks to whom millions of people come here?

Our city is famous for outstanding figures in science, culture and art. Getting familiar with the history of native land, one understands that titanic work of millions of people is hidden behind the considerable success and greatness. Not only Ukrainians but also other nations made a huge contribution. Special attention should be given to the Poles, who, while living in Kharkiv, through hard work and discoveries managed to offer the world a new system of standards in the scientific field.

One of those prominent figures was Leon Cienkowski, who turned around the world’s idea on botany and microorganisms forever. He was born in 1822 in Warsaw in a poor family. Leon’s mother had to work hard to give her son an opportunity to get a good education. In 1839, a future biologist graduated from the Warsaw High School and was awarded by the Kingdom of Poland a scholarship in the Saint Petersburg Imperial University for excellent studies. Here, Leon joined the Faculty of Mathematics, but quickly realized that this was not his area. That is why he transferred to the natural science department, where he became interested in studying botany.

At the end of the course of study (in 1844), a young scientist got the title of candidate of natural sciences and a job at the university. Two years later, after defending his dissertation on “Some facts of the life history of coniferous plants”, he received a master’s degree. Leon Cienkowski’s journey to Central Africa, which lasted more than two years, played a special role in his further life and scientific researches. The young botanist made this journey with colonel Kowalewski. After returning from this expedition, Cienkowski focused on teaching. Educational institutions (and above all, universities) stood in a queue to invite the distinguished teacher and scientist to give lectures. That is why he had worked in many cities and left behind invaluable background of discoveries, knowledge and unique scientific works.

Kharkiv was one of those scientific centers of the Russian Empire that was fortunate to become a link in the life path of Leon Cienkowski. In 1872 he began to work at the Kharkiv Imperial University (49.988777, 36.229828), where he was always surrounded by the respect of colleagues and the devotion of brilliant students (many of them would later become his assistants). It was in Kharkiv that Leon described 43 new species of microorganisms and published 49 scientific papers on botany and microbiology. Kharkiv’s life page of the outstanding biologist has become one of the greatest for him.

The professor’s success story in Kharkiv was interesting and surprising, but extremely complicated. It was then that the world suffered from anthrax, which was killing both humans and domestic animals. All advanced scientists of that time worked on the creation of an effective cure to defeat the disease. And finally, the French Louis Pasteur invented a vaccine that had been successfully used in many European countries. But not in the Russian Empire! And the reason for that was unclear. In fact, the state was doomed to destroy its agriculture. After all, on the territory of the empire of that time, farmers suffered heavy losses of livestock and did not know how to deal with this disaster.

At that extremely difficult time, Leon Cienkowski took a great responsibility to develop the vaccine on his own, through a completely new method! He went to Paris to meet Louis Pasteur for consultations and teamwork in a laboratory. But the french inventor did not want to cooperate on this issue and to share the secret of success. Cienkowski, however, didn’t lose his courage; he decided to spend time productively. In Paris, he met many well-known microbiology specialists and researchers, spent a lot of time working in the laboratory of Balbiani. At the same time, the Kharkiv scientist visited the Koch laboratories (in Berlin) and Nägeli (in Munich).

Having returned to Kharkiv (in 1882), the professor created, almost solely at his own expense, a bacteriological laboratory at the university, where he subsequently developed numerous effective vaccines. The state funded his needs little, so the biologist often had to work in poor conditions. Money was not enough even for ordinary materials, and therefore every means available were resorted. Curiously, Kharkiv county and the landowners refused to fund the research, though they needed the vaccine more than anybody.

And when the research, due to lack of resources, was almost frozen, one of Cienkowski’s former students, Grigory Skadowski, helped out. He provided him with a four-room laboratory, a quality microscope and sheep for experiments. It was within those walls where it became possible to make a breakthrough in veterinary medicine and in medicine in general.

The experiments were successful and sponsors appeared soon. In particular, it was the Kherson provincial county that agreed to fund the work of the talented inventor.

Initially, Leon Cienkowski considered vaccination only as a mean of preventing infectious disease through the formation of immunity to anthrax. But in the future, as he continued his studies, he even surpassed himself! The vaccine he developed saved lives of animals, forming in them the immunity, which was inherited further. From now on, one vaccination was enough to ensure a healthy offspring. The vaccines he developed proved to be much more effective than the french ones because they were suitable not only for sheep but also for other animals.

Thus, without the means or the sponsors to carry out research, the talented scientist saved numerous farms and the lives of many animals. Leon Cienkowski is one of those Poles who, despite ups and downs of fortune, succeeded in realizing their goal and glorifying Kharkiv as a scientific center for the whole world!

List of References

 1. Васильев К. Г., Зангевская Т. А. Л. С. Ценковский. – Москва, 1973.

 2. Метелкин А.И. Л.С. Ценковский – основоположник отечественной школы микробиологов, 1822 – 1887. – Москва, 1950.

3. Резник И. В. Идеи учёного-бактериолога Л. С. Ценковского в практической деятельности земского врача Мелитопольского уезда Таврической губернии А.В. Корвацкого // Культура народов Причерноморья. — 2002. — N 34. – С. 179-186.

4. Райков Б. Е. Русские биологи – эволюционисты до Дарвина. Материалы к истории эволюционной идеи в России. – Т. 3. – Москва-Ленинград, 1955.

Prepared by Svitlana Gabaraieva.