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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.2 (2000) 269-276

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In Search of Alexander A. Maximow: The Man Behind the Unitarian Theory of Hematopoiesis

Igor E. Konstantinov *

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb,
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts. . . .

--William Shakespeare (Sonnet 17)

Who was Alexander A. Maximow? This question is not an easy one to answer. He was a brilliant artist making beautiful drawings with dramatic precision. He was a polyglot speaking fluently English, German, French, and Russian. He was a handsome young general wearing tightly fit, elegant uniforms. He was an enthusiastic lecturer and a reckless mountain climber and world explorer. He was a refined Russian aristocrat alienated from his homeland. Maximow wrote "the world's most respected textbook in histology," a book that became a standard text for many generations of medical students and ran to 12 editions [1]. However, above all he was an outstanding scientist who developed and introduced a unitarian theory of hematopoiesis, a theory upon which our present concept of blood cells' origin and differentiation is based.

It was my good fortune to study at the Military Medical Academy, St. Petersburg, Russia. As a first-year student, I entered the Department of Histology, and there I first saw a portrait of Alexander A. Maximow in the uniform of a general of the Russian Army. I was told that Maximow headed the department many years ago. I was fascinated by the precision of his numerous drawings, which were still held and carefully preserved at the department's museum. I could not guess at that time that many years later I would find his lost grave. [End Page 269]

Biographical Notes

Alexander Alexandrovich Maximow was born in St. Petersburg on 22 January 1874. He was very close to his sister Claudia, who was five years older and looked after her little brother. Maximow studied in the German gymnasium in St. Petersburg and entered the Imperial Military Medical Academy in 1891. His student work on artificially produced amyloid degeneration of the liver was awarded a gold medal. In 1896, when he was 22 years old, Maximow graduated "primus omnium"--literally "the first of all"--that is, the top student in his class [2]. His young age, family background, and excellent education opened a way for an outstanding academic career. He soon successfully defended his doctoral dissertation, entitled Zur Frage pathologischer Regeneration des Hodens (Research on the Pathological Regeneration of the Testes), and was awarded the title of Doctor of Medicine.

In 1900, Maximow went to Germany. He worked in Freiburg with Prof. O. Hertwig, in the field of embryology, and with Prof. Zeigler, in experimental pathology. In 1902, he published an excellent monograph on experimental aseptic inflammation. While conducting his investigations, Maximow coined new terms, such as "wandering cells at rest" and "polyblasts." His classic monograph on inflammation "antedates in its findings the later work of many investigators and is still admired today as a pioneering study of great foresight and exactness" [1].

In 1903, Maximow returned to St. Petersburg as Professor of Histology and Embryology at the Military Medical Academy, a position he held until 1922. He married a charming ballerina of the Russian Imperial Ballet and adopted her son Fedor [1]. In 1914, Maximow's textbook The Essence of Histology was published in St. Petersburg and became a standard text for students in Russian universities. In the foreword to the first edition, written by Maximow in June 1913, in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, he noted that his book consisted of "systematic and slightly enriched material of the lectures I read to the first and second year students of the Imperial Military Medical Academy for the last 10 years" [3]. It is this book, modified, enlarged, and edited, that became the famous Textbook of Histology [4-6]. Maximow learned about the declaration of World War I while he was in Rio...