Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Lina Shtern and the blood brain barrier

Irving Rosen
Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Photo of Dr. Lina Shtern
Dr. Lina Shtern (1878-1968), an esteemed Russian physiologist did pioneering work with the blood brain barrier, and experienced distress as a result of her involvement in the WWII Russian war effort. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image No. SIA2009-3768.

Future generations will remember our age for unbelievable electronic progress, but also for the bloody conflicts of World War II, characterized by dictatorial figures that darkened the lives of so many productive, innocent people. Among these was Dr. Lina Shtern, whose pioneer work permitted her to envision and name the blood-brain barrier, first demonstrated by Erlich in the late 1800s. In the 1920s, Shtern published her experimental work explaining the physiology of this complex cerebral mechanism protecting cerebral function. This was verified by Karnofsky in the 1970s using the electron microscope.

Shtern was born in 1878 in Tsarist Russia’s Latvia. Her grandfather was a rabbi. She and her parents were secular, attempting to modernize and confound the stigma of despicability associated with Jews as a minority group. It was such people that looked favorably upon Marxism, with its promise of egalitarianism. Lina, eldest of seven children, was an excellent student and became fluent in French, German, English, and Italian. Refused medical training at Moscow University, she entered Geneva University’s medical school in 1898 where she found other Russian students like herself. Graduating MD by 1903, she showed particular interest and skill in physiology under its head, Dr. Jean Prevost. He recognized her aptitude and appointed her as his assistant.

Life for Lina in Geneva was ideal. She embarked on original research and published extensively. She studied electrostimulation of the heart, cellular metabolism, oxidation, cellular respiration, and central nervous physiology. In some ways her work anticipated the Nobel prize-winning Krebs cycle. In 1913 she presented her work at an international physiology congress meeting. She taught undergraduates and consulted for pharmaceutical firms, which enriched her lifestyle. She socialized with Russian emigres such as Gorky’s wife, Plekhanov, a Marxist theoretician, and Bakh, a physiologist. In 1918 a new department of physiological chemistry, or biochemistry, was established at the medical school by Prevost, who appointed Shtern as its head. She was the first woman to attain such responsibility at the University of Geneva and one of a few such women in all of Europe.

After this appointment, her work on the blood-brain barrier expanded. She published conceptual articles, as well as aspects of the penetration of drugs into the brain, cerebrospinal fluid, brain homeostasis, and the blood-brain barrier in the developing brain. Busy with experimental activity, she had little interest in political issues. However, the devastation of the First World War left her with some sympathy for revolutionary movements. Her friend, Bakh, after twenty-five years left Switzerland in 1917 to found the first biochemical institute in post-revolutionary Russia. Through his influence she was invited to return as well. Sympathetic towards her homeland, its people, and political changes, she left her comfortable Swiss life in 1925 to become at age forty-eight head of physiology at Moscow State University. Her Swiss colleagues deplored her decision.

In Moscow, her devotion to work continued. She taught biochemistry, organized two laboratories, and published in foreign journals. In 1929 she became the director of a new institute of physiology and was included in Soviet delegations at international meetings. She proudly hosted distinguished foreign visitors at her institute. She and the famed Pavlov were not friendly, but despite his resistance, she organized the 1935 International Physiological Congress in the USSR, attracting world figures. Named “Distinguished Scientist of the USSR” in 1934, she was given a car for her own use and was further honored by selection to two different Soviet science academies. She became an advocate for suboccipital instillation of streptomycin for lethal tuberculous meningitis, which proved effective, and impressive results were demonstrated to streptomycin inventor Waksman when he visited from the US.

After Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Shtern was awarded a Stalin Prize for her work and contributed cash for the war effort, earning Stalin’s commendation. Several antifascist committees were formed by Stalin to advance the Soviet war effort by attracting financial and political support, particularly in the West. Shtern was coopted to committees such as the Jewish Antifascist Committee (JAFC), led by Solomon Michoels, director of the Yiddish Art Theatre and consisting of many high-profile members. The JAFC was very effective in its 1943 North American tour led by Michoels and the poet Feffer, bringing back $30 million after appearing with Einstein and Mayor LaGuardia in New York City. However, as the Russians were pushing the German army back out of Russia, JAFC became aware of Nazis targeting Jews for mass murder. As well, Soviet Jewish citizens, following liberation, were facing racist problems in resettling or claiming their properties. These citizens looked to the JAFC for assistance and solace, which lay outside the committee’s powers. The idea of a separate Jewish homeland in the Crimea was even considered. A “Black Book” of Nazi crimes against Jews was prepared, but these acts were seen as inconsistent with Soviet policy.

Stalin had supported the establishment of Israel in 1948, wishing to disrupt English influence in the Middle East, but Ben-Gurion disappointed him by turning to the US for political and economic support. Paranoid as always, Stalin began to view the JAFC with suspicion and started planning its destruction. Michoels was murdered in 1948 in a mock car accident and buried with state honors. As Stalin’s “anti-cosmopolitanism” antisemitic campaign was gearing up, a publication attacked Shtern’s theories. Later that year she was further attacked at a science meeting for anti-Pavlovian thinking and contact with the West.

In 1949 Israeli ambassador Golda Meir came to Moscow. Her presence at a synagogue touched off an eruption of enthusiastic demonstrations of Jewish Muscovites, who despite their communistic allegiance remembered subliminally the traditional ending of the Passover meal i.e., “next year in Jerusalem.” Molotov’s wife, Polina, spoke in Yiddish to Golda saying, “I am a daughter of the Jewish people.” Stalin was infuriated by this action and wished to kill Polina, but contented himself by ordering Molotov to divorce his wife and sentencing her for five years to the gulag. Stalin told his daughter angrily that Soviet Jews were infected with Zionism and part of an aggressive American encirclement of the USSR.

Shtern’s institute was disbanded and she was dismissed. In 1949 Shtern, at age seventy-one was arrested along with the other JAFC members and confined to prison for interrogation. The group spent over three years undergoing repeated questioning and physical beating, all under Stalin’s direction. During interrogation Shtern was called an “old whore” and accused of prostitution, to which she replied with humor that at her age she would have to provide payment rather than receive it. In 1952 the group was put on trial by military judges; there were no witnesses or defense lawyers, and the judge also acted as prosecutor. The group was accused of Jewish nationalism and love of Zionism, which were seen as anti-Soviet activities. Shtern rejected all arguments against her, defying self-incrimination—the norm for Soviet purge trials. All were found guilty and shot, except Dr. Lina Shtern. She was assigned to a gulag for five years as were the families of those convicted. The JAFC members “disappeared” and their executions officially denied, causing furor in the American press.

After Stalin died in 1953 the military court reconvened and rescinded their previous guilty judgment because of fabricated evidence. Stalin’s “successor group” met after his death and awarded Molotov a birthday gift, namely his wife. Shtern, now seventy-six, returned from exile and once more became the leader of a physiology institute with her previous staff. She wrote an article summarizing the status of the blood-brain barrier and organized five more international meetings. To an interviewer she dismissed romantic attachment with a male admirer because he had expected her to give up her work.

After all her ordeals, she attended to her science quietly and effectively, evading complaints about her past mistreatment. When she died in 1968 her funeral was attended by a crowd of people who gave speeches of affection and admiration in her honor, particularly as she had idealistically returned to help her country while not realizing its domination by a merciless autocrat.



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  2. J. Rubenstein, Naumov V. Stalin’s Secret Pogrom Yale University PressNew Haven 2001.
  3. Dawson History of the Blood Brain Barrier Concept in Neuwelt E.A. (ed)Implications of the Blood Brain Barrier and Its Manipulation Springer Boston 1989.
  4. Melgoza S Nakhimovsky Discusses the Secret Trials of Jewish Intellectuals in Soviet Russia The Colgate Maroon News Nov 12 ,2015.
  5. Liebe-Léa-Lina Interview de Dr Lina Stern Tribune Juive Juillet 8 2021
  6. Sarikcioglu L. Lina Stern (1878-1968): an outstanding scientist of her time Child’s Nervous System 33 1027-29 (2017).
  7. Nakhimovsky A. Lina Solomonova Stern (Shtern) Jewish Women’s Archives June 23 2021.



IRVING B. ROSEN, MD, FRCS(C), is now retired from longstanding practice in General Surgery. As a member of the Toronto Medical History Club and Canadian Association for History of Medicine he devotes his time to the research of medical history and the publication and presentations of the results.


Summer 2021  |  Sections  |  Science

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