Lev Zilber is a scientist and researcher

When preparing the exhibition project "Tick. Catch red-handed" we asked our colleagues to take part in the exhibition. At present our partners are:

State Historical Museum (Moscow), K.A. Timiryazev State Biological Museum (Moscow), "N.A. Semashko National Research Institute of Public Health" (Moscow),  Pskov State United Historical, Architectural and Art Museum-Reserve" (Pskov), Far Eastern State Scientific Library (Khabarovsk), Local History Museum of the Lazo Municipal District (Pereyaslavka settlement, Khabarovsk Krai).

We decided to publicly thank our colleagues and say a few words about the materials provided by the country's museums dedicated to the problem of tick-borne encephalitis.

Let's start by talking about the people in the pictures.

L.A. Zilber and V.A. Kaverin in Luga, Leningrad Region, 1940.

From the collection of the Pskov State United Historical, Architectural and Art Museum-Reserve.

In the 1930s, cases of an unknown disease, accompanied by fever, brain inflammation, paralysis, and often fatal, became more frequent in the Far East. The disease appeared only in summer time. Mostly migrants who were developing new territories suffered from the disease. 

A group of scientists headed by Lev Aleksandrovich Zilber, a talented virologist, immunologist, oncologist, creator of the school of medical virology, who put forward the theory of virologic nature of the origin of cancer, founder of the sanitary-epidemiological service, was sent from Moscow to study the new disease.

Lev Alexandrovich was born in 1894 in the village of Medved, Medvedskaya volost, Novgorod uyezd, into the family of a military Kapellmeister. From childhood he dreamed of becoming a doctor. In 1912 he graduated from the Pskov provincial gymnasium with a silver medal and entered the natural department of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of St. Petersburg University. Three years later he transferred to the medical faculty of Moscow University, with the opportunity to simultaneously attend classes at the natural department. In 1919 he graduated from two faculties at once. 

He volunteered for the Red Army, where he fought typhus. After the war he returned to science. Since 1921, he worked at the Institute of Microbiology of the People's Commissariat of Health.

In 1925, the future scientist met Zinaida Vissarionovna Ermolieva, who was studying cholera. The first months after their marriage, L.A. Silber and Z.V. Ermolieva spent working at the Pasteur Institute (France) and the Koch Institute (Germany).

In 1929, L.A. Zilber headed the Azerbaijan Institute of Microbiology and the Department of Microbiology of the Medical Institute in Baku. In 1930, he led the work to suppress the outbreak of plague in Nagorno-Karabakh. The outbreak was defeated by imposing strict quarantine. L.A. Zilber was presented to the Order of the Red Banner, but was soon arrested on charges of sabotage to infect the population of Azerbaijan with plague. However, 4 months later he was released. Perhaps thanks to the petition of writer Maxim Gorky, who was approached by L. Zilber's younger brother - writer Veniamin Kaverin (creative pseudonym of Veniamin Zilber), or the efforts of his ex-wife Z.V. Ermolieva.

After the liberation he returned to Moscow, headed the Department of Microbiology at the Central Institute for Advanced Training of Doctors and, heading the microbiological department of the Tarasevich State Scientific Control Institute of the People's Commissariat for Health of the RSFSR, achieved the establishment of the Central Virus Laboratory at the People's Commissariat for Health of the RSFSR and the opening of the Department of Virology at the Institute of Microbiology of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Having a solid track record, in 1937 he was appointed to lead the Far Eastern expedition of the USSR People's Commissariat of Health to study an unknown infectious disease of the central nervous system (CNS). In the course of the expedition's work the nature of the disease - tick-borne encephalitis - was clarified. The operational headquarters was located in the settlement of Obor, Khabarovsk Krai - in the center of the spread of infection. The researchers found out that ticks were the carriers of the disease, and wild animals (chipmunks, thrushes, etc.) were the carriers. Within three months, a vaccine was developed. Biologists tested the effect of the vaccine not only on laboratory animals, but also on themselves.

Upon returning to Moscow, all expedition members were presented with Stalin's Prize; L.A. Zilber was arrested on denunciation of an attempt to infect Moscow with encephalitis through the city water supply and the slow development of drugs to treat the disease. While in prison, L.A. Zilber continued to engage in scientific research and treatment of the sick. While serving time in Pechora, he developed a drug against pellagra based on moss and yeast and gave the drug to prisoners who died of complete avitaminosis.

In 1939, Lev Alexandrovich was released, presumably again thanks to the petition of his former wife Z.V. Ermolieva and the writer Yuri Tynyanov, a friend of his youth and husband of one of L.A. Zilber's sisters. However, in 1940 he was arrested for the third time. This time, while in the camp, the scientist began researching cancerous tumors in prisoners.

In 1944, L.A. Zilber was released, probably due to a letter of the scientist's innocence sent to Stalin and signed by Nikolai Burdenko, Leon Orbeli, Vladimir Engelhardt, Zinaida Ermolieva and the writer Veniamin Kaverin. After his release, Lev Alexandrovich immediately published his concept of the origin of cancerous tumors in the newspaper Izvestia.

In 1945 he was appointed scientific director of the Institute of Virology of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences and headed the department of virology and immunology of tumors of the Institute of Epidemiology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, where he worked all the following years.

The fate of the scientist is described by his brother Veniamin Kaverin in the novel "Open Book", on which the series is filmed. Also about the fate of his brother-scientist V. Kaverin told in the book of memoirs "Epilogue".

For more materials, see the exhibition "Tick. Caught red-handed." The opening will take place on November 24, 2023 in the Khabarovsk Krai Museum named after N.I. Grodekov. N.I. Grodekov.

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