The Man Who Blamed Aging on His Intestines

People would develop an “instinct” for death, just as they have a need for sleep


One day in late December 1899, Elie Metchnikoff, one of the world’s most famous biologists, woke up to discover he had found the key to immortality. That, at least, was what the popular French daily Le Matin announced on its front page that morning. A jubilant headline blared in block letters LONG LIVE LIFE!—DOCTOR METCHNIKOFF AND THE STRUGGLE AGAINST DEATH. Sub‐headings throughout the article, which dwelt on Metchnikoff’s new research on aging at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, were no less dramatic: A VISIT TO THE ALCHEMISTS ON RUE DUTOT—THE ELIXIR OF ETERNAL YOUTH—AT THE INSTITUTE OF MIRACLES—OLD AGE DEFEATED. A few days later, in an editorial on the prospects for the upcoming century, the paper gushed, “None of us should despair to see the year 2000! We’ll reach the age of the patriarchs, and Monsieur Metchnikoff will be damned only by heirs to fortunes.”

Before long, press around the world picked up news of the miracles being wrought on rue Dutot. The horrified Metchnikoff started receiving letters from the elderly in France and elsewhere begging him to help them not to die. “Metchnikoff is really annoyed by the noise journalists make around his name,” Metchnikoff’s assistant Jules Bordet wrote to his wife in Belgium. “It’s a bit of his own fault, he should have chucked them out more vigorously.”

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