Women's Activism NYC

Lina Shtern

1878 - 1968

By: MV | Date Added:

Lina Shtern (Stern) made important contributions to biochemistry and chemical physiology. She was one of the founders of modern chemical physiology in the USSR. She did pioneering work on the hematoencephalic barrier, that is, the frontier between the blood and the cerebrospinal fluid around the brain (the blood-brain barrier). During her long life she published more than 500 scientific articles. She was the founder and chief editor (until her arrest) of the Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine, and she was in the editorial board of several other scientific journals. Born in a Jewish family in czarist Russia, educated and employed in Switzerland, later a professor in the Soviet Union, Lina S. Shtern was a cosmopolitan long before the Soviet Union’s anti-Semitic instigators denounced people such as her as (bad) Jews using the word cosmopolitan instead of Jew. Shtern was born in the family of a successful merchant, and her grandfather was a rabbi. Because of the discrimination against Jews in czarist Russia, Jewish students had to study mostly in foreign countries, among others in Germany. Like many Jewish women from Russia, Lina Shtern after school went to Switzerland and became one of the Russian women students at the University of Geneva. Shtern studied medicine, and in 1903 she received her doctoral degree. Because of the hopeless job situation for women scientists, and especially women Jews, in Russia, Shtern stayed in Switzerland. After completing her dissertation she got an assistant position; in 1906 she received the venia legendi (privatdozent); and finally, in 1917, she became professor of physiological chemistry at the University of Geneva. She was a disciple of Jean-Louis Prevost Jr. (1838–1927) and worked together with his successor Federico Battelli (1867–1941). Until 1925 she succeeded in a remarkable scientific career as one of the first famous women scientists in Europe. In a short autobiographical sketch Shtern described herself as a feminist. Attracted by the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union, Shtern decided in the middle of 1920s to move to the Soviet Union. From 1925 onward she lived and worked in Moscow. She became a full professor of physiology at the second Moscow University (the University for Medicine), and in 1929 she became director of her own scientific research institute, the Institute for Physiology. Her institute first belonged to the ministry (commissariat) for higher education; later it was one of the academic institutes of the Academy of Science of the USSR. She described the aim of her institute in some letters to the neuroscientists Ce’cile (1875–1962) and Oskar (1870–1959) Vogt in Berlin: she wanted to establish a research program to investigate physiology from the different perspectives of medicine, biology, and chemistry. And she wanted to create an international research institute, where scientists from all countries could work and publish together. This aim she could not fully realize because of the Stalinist policy, yet for more than ten years, she and her team had many scientific successes. In 1939 Shtern was elected a full member of the Academy of Science of the USSR, the first woman scientist of the USSR to be thus honored. Furthermore, in 1944 she became a member of the newly established Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR. Already in 1932 she had become a member of the oldest German Academy of Science (Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher), the Leopoldina; but because of the Nazi regime and its racist policy, she was stricken from the membership list soon after the nomination. After 1945 she was again a member of the Leopoldina. Although she had been a member of the Communist Party since 1939, Shtern began to act in politics only when the German troops overtook the Soviet Union in June 1941. Asked to participate in antifascist committees, Shtern accepted and became member of several such committees. In 1941–1942 she joined the most important one: she became member of the presidium of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), headed by the famous Yiddish actor Solomon Michoels (Mikhoels; 1890–1948). During World War II (the “great patriotic war,” as it was named in the USSR), Shtern worked on war medicine. Persecution by the Soviets In 1948 the tragic part of her life began. Because of the anti-Semitic policy of the Soviet State—the government and the leaders of the Communist Party—a campaign was started against “cosmopolitism,” which led soon to arrests and deaths, and new discriminations against Jews were established in all spheres of life. Officially stopped in 1953 (after the death of Joseph Stalin), the anti-Semitic discrimination policy in reality never was ended in the Soviet Union, with fewer arrests after 1953, but with strong barriers against Jews in several professions, including scientific ones. Shtern worked in two important fields: first biochemistry, especially physiological chemistry, until about 1917. She studied metabolism, and she studied in vitro the respiration in special tissues. Furthermore, she worked on the characterization of enzymes involved in substrate metabolism. Between 1904 and 1914, Shtern together with Battelli published about thirty articles on oxidation, mostly in the famous biochemical journal Biochemische Zeitschrift of Carl Neuberg (1877–1956). In 1912, Battelli and Shtern published their main results about oxidation and ferments in a long article (Shtern & Batteli, 1912). Starting in 1917, Shtern studied the effects of certain drugs and organ extracts in organisms. Her new scientific field became the blood-brain barrier. From 1919 to 1923, still in Geneva, she studied the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. Because of her work, she came in close contacts with the brain researchers the Vogts at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in Berlin. Between 1925 and 1929, after she moved to the Soviet Union and had to struggle for her own research institute, she could publish nothing. Then another decade of important research began. Between 1930 and 1940, she investigated new studies on the blood-brain barrier and published, together with Soviet and foreign coauthors, some important papers. During World War II, Shtern worked on war medicine, helping thousands of wounded soldiers; in 1943 she received the Stalin Prize for the practical applications of her medical studies. Already in 1947, accusations were made against her scientific work and the research program of her institute (Rapoport, 1991). She was denounced for having cooperated “too much” with foreigners and employed “too many” Jews in her institute, as well as in the medical journal which she edited. During the years in prison and exile, from 1949 to 1953–1955, she had no opportunity for any scientific research. Perhaps she was able (and was allowed) to read some scientific literature in her exile. Less is known about her scientific work in the Institute for Biophysics. Lina Shtern is best known as a scientist for her work on the blood-brain barrier. She was one of the first woman scientists in Switzerland (as a professor) and in the USSR (as the first woman member of the Academy of Science); a member of the German academy of science, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (1932); a full member of the Academy of Science of the USSR (1939); a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR (1944); and an honorary doctor at the University of Geneva (1960).

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