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Swallowing Cholera Vibrios and Sucking Diphtheria Coating: How Russian Epidemiologist Daniil Zabolotny revolutionised infection treatment

Epidemiologist Daniil Zabolotny was ready to do anything for the sake of humanity and medicine. He swallowed cholera vibrios, sucked a diphtheria coating from an anxious child’s throat, and infected himself with the Plague. Even bedridden, he continued to document his condition until losing consciousness. Infections were Zabolotny’s enemies, and he devoted his life to defeating them. At the same time, he didn’t seem to notice wars and revolutions gripping his country, and he died thinking of a new vaccine.

Daniil Zabolotny was born in 1866 in the village of Chebotarka to a former serf and the daughter of a village teacher. After graduating from Odessa gymnasium, Zabolotny entered the Novorossiysk University but was expelled for participating in student protests. Still, he was lucky enough to become an assistant in a bacteriological lab in Odessa. Thanks to his ambition and excellent research skills, he did graduate from the university a bit later and obtained a PhD in natural sciences.

Cholera soup

zabolotny drank cholera vibrios to make a vaccine
Over 28 days Zabolotny injected himself and two of his students with a vaccine consisting of dead vibrios/Illustration by Arina Ionova

In the early 1890s, Daniil Zabolotny studied cholera vibrios — the biological agents causing cholera in a Kiev lab. Having found out that gophers are very susceptible to the infection, Zabolotny injected them with dead vibrios and discovered the animals develop immunity. This was when the real horror movie started. The young scientist decided to test the vaccine on himself. After the vaccination period, the scholar drank a “broth culture of Vibrio cholerae”. In other words, he drank the living killer bacteria. To create a favourable environment for the infection in the body, he neutralised his gastric juice with a soda solution. While the rabbits also participating in the experiment died, Zabolotny and his students showed no symptoms of the disease. The effectiveness of the vaccine had been proved.

Diphtheria cocktail

Apart from lab work, Zabolotny travelled to remote villages heavily affected by a diphtheria epidemic. There he tested the anti-diphtheria serum developed by the German scientists Wilhelm Roux and Emil Adolf von Bering. Diphtheria usually affects the larynx: a thin grey coating forms on the mucous membrane of the throat. Without proper treatment, the coating gradually thickens and blocks the trachea. As a result, it becomes almost impossible for the patient to breathe. Before the German serum, the only way to save a patient was to suck the coating out of his throat with a glass tube. Physicians performing the procedure could often become infected and die.

Illustration by Arina Ionova

Son Petya

While saving other people's children, Zabolotny failed to rescue his son. On one of his trips to a remote village with his young wife, writer Lyudmila Radetskaya, his son Petya caught a cold. Zabolotny decided to leave him in the care of a colleague and plunged into work. While Zabolotny was away, Petya's cold took a turn for the worse, and the boy died from complications. Petya's death was a tragedy for Dr Zabolotny. He never had another child of his own, but adopted ten children and made generous donations to charities for the rest of his life.



During one of his trips to a remote village, Zabolotny had to treat a peasant child whose airway was almost entirely blocked by the diphtheria coating. Without any hesitation, the physician sucked the coating with a tube. “After accidental contamination, I had to apply an anti-diphtheria serum on myself,” Zabolotny wrote in his report. Just as if he had been sucking diphtheria coatings daily.

Baboon discovery

In the late 19th — early 20th century syphilis was a curse for the Russian Empire. The epidemic was gaining momentum — Zabolotny documented 70.7 patients per 10,000 of the population. The scientist’s study of syphilis on baboons has contributed to a better understanding and prevention of the disease. Zabolotny’s assistants would take two baboons — one of them infected with syphilis and the other not. With special tweezers, Zabolotny would pierce the skin of a healthy animal and rubbed a syphilitic ulcer of the infected baboon against the abrasion. After such a procedure, the healthy baboon had no chance of avoiding contamination. Examining the ulcers of baboons, Zabolotny was the first to isolate the infectious agent — treponema pale and look at it under a microscope.

Illustration by Arina Ionova

Wife Lyudmila

Daniil Zabolotny and his wife were married for 26 years. Paradoxically, while Zabolotny's close contact with the most insidious diseases did not undermine his health, Lyudmila was easily susceptible to every minor infection. She suffered from tuberculosis, which got worse when she came to visit her husband in Kiev in 1918. Zabolotny sent her home, believing fresh air would do her good. But some time later Lyudmila died from typhus. A grief-stricken professor stopped all research and spent years in his home village Chebotarka. Eventually he returned to work; he outlived his wife by 11 years.



Tarbagan hunting

Though syphilis, cholera and diphtheria were among Zabolotny’s fields of academic interest, the Plague was his main passion.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a terrible plague epidemic broke out in Manchuria — the region on the Russian-Chinese border. The unsanitary conditions accelerated the spread of the disease. A tiny fanza, a traditional Chinese dwelling, could house up to 30 people. They rarely washed their bodies and their clothes, and often suffered from lice. “Plague ridden corpses rot in the streets, in garbage pits, in a ditch filled with excrement that surrounded the city, in a cemetery. All this contributes a lot to the spread of the terrible epidemic. And every morning the Chinese flowed into the Russian city of Harbin in search of work”, — recalled an eyewitness.

Zabolotny, as usual, rushed to the pest hole. His main goal was to prevent the spread of the Plague to Russia. The scientist worked closely with Chinese physicians and local authorities to provide the proper care to the numerous plague patients. During the trip, Zabolotny fell ill with a pustular form — a rare type of disease in which small lymph nodes become inflamed, and skin is covered with ulcers.

The doctor suggested the spread of the Plague was due to an unknown vector of the infection and suggested that the tarbagan was such a vector. The tarbagan marmot is a small rodent widespread in China, northern and western Mongolia and eastern Russia. During his second trip to Manchuria, together with his team, Zabolotny managed to catch an infected tarbagan, and prove they were one of the plague infection carriers. The discovery by Zabolotny moved Russian scientists far ahead in the development of mechanisms to combat the spread of Plague in the Russian East.

Deathbed experiments

russian doctor on his deathbed thinking of people
Dying, the professor said: “We should examine the sputum, whether there is streptococcus there. Maybe we could develop a vaccine.”/Illustration by Arina Ionova

In 1929, during a business trip to Leningrad, Daniil Zabolotny caught a cold, which deteriorated pretty quickly causing other health problems. When the temperature of Zabolotny’s body exceeded 42 degrees Celsius, an artery in his left eye was clogged, and he partially lost his eyesight. The professor was worried this would prevent him from doing further research after his recovery. But at some point, he happily exclaimed: “Still, you can look through a microscope with one eye!” The scientist underwent surgery, but it had no effect.