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How gerontology, the study of aging, came to be

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For centuries, people have been obsessed with staying young and even living forever. We spend billions of dollars on anti-aging products. We're told to look younger. We question whether older people are fit to lead. Well, NPR's history podcast, Throughline, brings us the story of the scientist who helped launch gerontology, the study of aging, and how we started viewing aging as a disease. Producer Devin Katayama takes it from here.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: In late 19th century Europe, Elie Metchnikoff believed that getting old meant suffering. The images and narratives about growing older were more and more negative as the Industrial Revolution was changing how families lived and worked. Many elderly people were getting left behind, and caring for them came to be seen as a burden. But Metchnikoff, who was a prominent scientist at the time, found that many elderly people didn't want to die. They wanted to live.

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LUBA VIKHANSKI: He developed a whole philosophy that there was this big disharmony in the world, you know, in nature, between the shortness of human life and people's desire to live.

KATAYAMA: This is Luba Vikhanski, author of "Immunity: How Elie Metchnikoff Changed The Course Of Modern Medicine."

VIKHANSKI: He was very famous. He was one of the most famous scientists in the world.

KATAYAMA: Metchnikoff was an immunologist who would go on to win a Nobel Prize. And he came to believe that aging was a disease that could be cured. Metchnikoff was hardcore. I mean, the man drank cholera in the name of science. He tested the body's power and its limits at a time when there was real promise in what science could accomplish.

VIKHANSKI: He thought that a solution to everything was science. So of course, science was going to solve aging as well.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As Elie Metchnikoff) Science alone can lead suffering humanity into the right path.

KATAYAMA: Metchnikoff was born in Russia and was now studying medicine in Paris. By the time he started working on aging, he was in his mid-50s, above the life expectancy at the time. And he started having kidney problems.

VIKHANSKI: And he began to worry about his own aging, and he also began to fear death.

KATAYAMA: He'd been working out of the Pasteur Institute, which was home to the miracle-makers of the day, scientists who were researching vaccination or figuring out what caused plague. And he was conducting all kinds of experiments on animals. He even studied his own gray hair. And then he zeroes in on this one idea that the body was being poisoned.

VIKHANSKI: He thought that the root of aging, that it all started in the intestines.

KATAYAMA: Specifically the large intestine.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As Elie Metchnikoff) The presence of large intestine in the human body is the cause of a series of misfortunes.

KATAYAMA: The idea that something bad was happening in the intestines is one that dates back thousands of years, so this wasn't necessarily a new idea. But in the late 19th century, it was making a comeback because science was making new links to germs and disease.

VIKHANSKI: So Metchnikoff thought that in the intestines, there are microbes that cause rotting, and that the rotting is what really causes the deterioration of aging. So the big question became how to fight that.

KATAYAMA: And then one day he had a breakthrough, which he soon shared with the world.

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KATAYAMA: At a lecture in Paris in 1904, Metchnikoff was the keynote speaker. And he started by painting a grim picture of aging.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As Elie Metchnikoff) Their lives often become very difficult, unable to fulfill any useful role in the family or in the community. Old people are considered a very heavy burden.

KATAYAMA: Metchnikoff was trying to sell his science, so he was playing to his audience, stoking the fears of aging that were growing at the time and then saying, hey, don't worry, science has the solution. And then he said, in this one region of Bulgaria, they're living to a hundred, and it's because they're eating...

VIKHANSKI: Yogurt.

KATAYAMA: Yogurt.

VIKHANSKI: They ate lots of yogurt.

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VIKHANSKI: He connected all these dots together. We age because in the intestines there is rotting. And lactic acid that is produced in sour milk can stop this rotting by killing the bacteria that cause the rotting. And there you have proof. All over the world, the newspapers started running stories. I think it's rare to trace the beginning of an industry to a single event. But in this case, I can pretty much - I can say, you know, that the yogurt industry started with that lecture.

KATAYAMA: Pharmacies started stocking yogurt. Doctors recommended it to patients. People used it as a disinfectant or for preparation for surgery, even to treat some diseases. This stuff was all over the place.

VIKHANSKI: There were ads. This cafe on one of the Parisian boulevards advertised Bulgarian curdled milk.

KATAYAMA: Even breakfast cereal pioneer John Harvey Kellogg reached out to Metchnikoff. His face was everywhere.

VIKHANSKI: They sold cups of yogurt and they said, recommended by Professor Metchnikoff and the medical profession. It was - totally got out of hand, completely.

KATAYAMA: Metchnikoff tried to control the narrative around his science, but it was hard when so many people wanted to believe in a magic elixir to cure aging. Even Metchnikoff was an optimist about what his science could accomplish until the end. But soon the headlines made a dark world impossible to ignore.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: War declared - all Europe in turmoil.

VIKHANSKI: What really killed him was World War I. He was such a believer in rational thought, in science. He thought that there will be no more wars. His wife describes it like how overnight he turned into an old man.

KATAYAMA: The idea that humans would willfully create so much death crushed him.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As Elie Metchnikoff) Let all those who expected me to live 100 years or longer forgive me my premature death.

KATAYAMA: Metchnikoff died from a heart attack in 1916 at 71 years old, not even halfway to the 150 years he thought people should live. A lot of people were disappointed, but the study of gerontology was born. And many of the same ideas about aging are being discussed today, including the benefits of probiotics. And we still seem obsessed with how long we can live, how well we can live and how close we are to doing what's never been done before.

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SHAPIRO: That was Throughline producer Devin Katayama speaking with author Luba Vikhanski. You can hear the entire episode by finding Throughline wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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