Birth Date: 26 August, 1878
Date of Death: 7 March , 1968 (aged 89)
Place of Birth: Libau, Latvia, Russian Empire
Place of Death: Moscow, Russia, Soviet Union
Nationality: Russian
Occupation/Field of Study Lina Stern was a Russian scientist credited for major breakthroughs in neurophysiology and biochemistry, the most acclaimed one being her development of the hemato-encephalic barrier concept


KEYWORDS: Lina, Stern, Russian, Soviet Union, Jewish, Blood Brain Barrier, Stalin, Execution, Doctor’s Plot, Geneva University.



Lina Stern is considered the mother of the hemato-encephalic barrier or blood brain barrier (BBB) concept, since she was the first to use this terminology in the early 1920s1(p.2). She was confident of the existence of such a structure after a series of experiments she carried out where she injected a number of substances into the brain parenchyma and blood2. In one of her published works in French, ”Le liquide céphalorachidien au point de vue de ses rapports avec la circulation sanguine et avec les éléments de l’axe cérébro-spinal”, she reached a number of conclusions on the roles and functions of the blood-brain barrier. She suggested that the BBB can act as a protective layer for the brain against harmful substances, while at the same time providing the brain with material that is essential for the processes of metabolism and homeostasis3.

Lina Stern was one of the first scientists to carry out extensive experiments and research on the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) as a medium of passage4 (p. 9). She found out that the CFS is selectively permeable5 (p. 2), as certain test compounds like bromide, thiocyante and strychine made it through , in contrast to others which did not4 (p. 9). Most importantly though, she discovered that while tetanus could pass into the CFS, the anti-tetanus serum, which was effective in fighting tetanus in the bloodstream, could not make it into the CFS6 (p. 46), thus rendering it ineffective in cases of tetanus presence in the CFS. Based on these findings, two decades later and during the Second World War, Lina Stern developed a groundbreaking technique to bypass the impermeability of the barrier insulating the CFS6(p. 46) by injecting drugs directly into the skull, a feat which is credited for saving thousands of lives on the fronts of WWII7(p. 198).

At the same time, Lina Stern was determined to treat traumatic shock among soldiers in the battlefield using potassium phosphate injections to the brain8 (p. 202). Using her research findings on the hemato-encephalic barrier, she directed the development of the drug at her institute and carried out some of the first practical injections herself, travelling to the fronts of the Winter War9 (p. 241). While her method was occasionally successful9 (p.241), it was largely controversial among scientific circles, who claimed that the method was incompatible with the anatomy of the brain9 (p. 241) thus prompting the Medial Board of the Soviet Army to reject it9 (p.241).

An equally important achievement by Lina Stern was her work on meningitis tuberculosis8 (p.208). Convinced that her method to inject drugs to cure traumatic shock was still effective9 (p.241), she used her scientific network to get the antibiotic ”streptomycin” shipped to Russia in order to attempt to apply it using her method on patients suffering from meningitis tuberculosis9 (p.241). Indeed, in 1944, her endeavour proved fruitful, as a ten-year-old girl infected with the deadly disease9 (p.241) survived. It was the first successful treatment of tuberculosis meningitis in the world10 (p.56), and was followed by 979 successful treatments, earning Stern and her team a patent for the cure of meningitis tuberculosis8 (p.202).

In addition to her work on the hemato-encephalic barrier and the achievements surrounding it, Lina Stern actively carried out research in other areas of such as the physiology of blood and the effects of electrical discharge on the heart8(p.196). Furthermore, she studied the process of uric acid oxidation and authored 54 articles on cellular metabolism8 (p.196).




Lina Stern was born in Kurland, a province of the Russian empire, on 26 August 1878. Her Jewish background made it impossible for her to be offered a place at a Russian Institution8 (p.196) and, after two years of unsuccessful attempts to gain entry into Moscow University, she moved to Switzerland to start a medical course at the University of Geneva. During her student years in Geneva, she worked for the Physiology department of the university, where she also published her first scientific article, ”Expérience sur la prétendu sécrétion interne des reins”. Upon the completion of her doctoral thesis, Stern was unable to find a job in science even in the relatively liberal Switzerland, due to her gender8 (p.196). She thus decided to return to Russia, where she passed the local qualifying examination to obtain the permit to exercise the medical profession in Russia.  However, she soon received a letter by Louis Prévost, the head of Geneva’s Physiology centre, asking her to return to Geneva to assume the position of laboratory assistant, an invitation she unhesitatingly accepted8 (p.196).

She later became the first woman to become associate professor at the University of Geneva11 (p.288) in 1918. At the same time, she worked for a number of pharmaceutical companies, thus creating a comfortable life for herself8 (p.199). Despite all this, though, and greatly influenced by the revolutionary cause through her interaction with Russian intellectuals residing in Switzerland8 (pp.199-200), she accepted an invitation to head the chair of physiology at Moscow’s Second State university. As she explained years later, this decision was based on her realisation that the impoverished Soviet Union was in greater need of her skills than affluent Switzerland8(p.200).

Her academic life in the Soviet Union progressed impressively. She created new courses of physiology at her university, published a series of journals in three languages and, in 1929, she became the head of Moscow’s brand new Institute of Physiology. Her scientific achievements in the late twenties and thirties earned her worldwide admiration12, and many leading scientists participated in the International Physiology Conference in Leningrad in 1935, upon invitation by Stern, who had fought to organise it in Russia8 (p.200).  Her achievements were also recognised by the Rockefeller Foundation, which granted her funding for her research.

In 1939, she joined the Communist Party, gained the respect of the political elite and donated the whole sum of an award she received for setting up a medical plane in order the support the Soviet Union’s fight against Nazi Germany. Nothing seemed to predict what awaited her after the end of WWII.  As the newly-created Jewish state of Israel tacitly aligned itself with the West13, Stalin’s hopes for a new pro-Soviet socialist state in the Middle East were tarnished and his active support for the creation of Israel turned into a phobia about anything associated with it14 (p.493); in his mind this also included prominent Soviet Jews14 (p.493), one of them being Lina Stern. As Vein puts it, in light of Stalin’s post-war anti-Semitic paranoia, ”clouds were gradually gathering over academician Stern”8 (p.203).

Indeed, in 1948, an attempt to discredit her scientific reputation was initiated and she was accused of antiscientific practices15. She was dubbed as ”cosmopolitan”8 (p.203), which in Stalinist USSR meant a collaborator of the West and essentially a traitor16. The Physiology Institute which she was heading was soon disbanded and she was sacked despite her admirable calmness in answering all the questions forwarded by a puppet scientific committee who had the sole purpose of proving her wrong8 (p.203). Finally, in 1951 and at the age of 73, she was arrested and, after systematic physical and psychological torture, she was forced to ”confess”, along with fourteen leading Jewish figures, to being the ”chief of a nationalist clandestine organisation17, namely the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. At one point during the interrogation and after Lina Stern denied being an American spy, the minister of state security, Viktor Abakumov, roared at her, ”Stop lying you old whore”18 (p.211), showing a profound disrespect for the sacrifices and contributions this woman made to her country at the expense of her own comfort and prosperity.

Finally, the court convicted Lina Stern, along with the other fourteen prominent Jews, to execution for espionage activity on behalf of the United States19. The decision was finally carried out on the 12 August 1952, and thirteen of the fifteen convicts were executed in what is now known as the ”night of the murdered poets”. One of them died in prison while Lina Stern was exempted from execution and was sentenced instead to three and a half years of imprisonment and to five more years of exile in Kazakhstan. It is widely speculated that the reason of Lina’s ”special treatment” was Stalin’s anxiety about his deteriorating health and his hope that Stern’s discoveries on longevity could prove useful in prolonging his life8 (p.204).

Even during her imprisonment, Stern’s passion about science never abated. She requested paper and a pen and kept authoring journals in which she proposed ideas on how her breakthroughs on the BBB could help in the treatment of cancer8 (p.204). She even, admittedly naively8 (p.204), sent a letter to the authorities requesting access to a laboratory in order to continue her experimental work8 (p.204).

Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 brought a change in the leadership of the Soviet Union and the new government admitted that the ”Doctor’s plot” (the name given to the prosecution of the 15 members of the JAFC) had been fabricated. All the fifteen convicts were rehabilitated and Lina Stern, as the only one alive, was soon appointed head of the Institute of Biophysics. In spite of her ordeal, and against everyone’s expectations, she maintained the same dedication to her scientific work and continued writing scientific articles and expanding her international contacts8 (p.205). She did not make a family and she died at the age of 89 in Moscow, on 5 March 1968. She is buried at the famous Novodevichy Cemetery next to other important figures of Russian history, such as Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov.



Lina Stern’s major achievements were always a result of team work and throughout her career she work with acclaimed scientists. Her most important collaborator was Frederic Batteli, a Swiss scientist who was also a researcher at Geneva’s Institute of Physiology. Together, they published a number of journals and carried out several experiments on respiratory enzymes8 (p.196). They investigated the properties of the enzyme ”uricase”20 and established a link between the amounts of oxygen used and carbon dioxide produced during enzyme oxidation with Wiechowski’s theory of allantoin21 (p.1). The duo also worked with Thorsten Ludvig Thunberg on the properties of substances found in minced animal tissues and their effects on hydrogen atoms transfer8 (p.196).

Also, between 1918 and 1925, Lina Stern closely cooperated with Raymond Gautier on a number of experiments related to the blood brain barrier concept. They conducted a series of experiments on animals and by injecting various substances into them, concluding that Intracerebral distribution of the substances is actually taking place22.

Lina Stern’s findings and her contribution to the scientific world were universally praised. Her recognition exceeded the borders of the Soviet Union and she earned the respect of the international scientific community8 (p.200). Every year, she was invited to lecture at leading scientific events around the world and important scientists such as P.Hoffman, F.Logier and J.Buccert would visit her Moscow laboratory to gain an insight into her work. Many of them, as a gesture of appreciation to her work, also donated expensive equipment to her institute, which was essential to maintain high quality research8 (p.200). She also occupied a place in the German magazine ”Eminent women of Europe” which was an annual pre-war publication commemorating important achievements by European women8(p.201).



Initially, medicine appealed to me not as a science, but as a philanthropic activity.

in Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences, F.1563.N1, 2, 3, translated by Veil, Alla (2008), ”Science and Fate: Lina Stern (1878–1968), A Neurophysiologist and Biochemist”, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(2), 195-206.

One doesn’t know what kind of babies will be born from this marriage…

In response to the news that the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was a ”marriage of convenience”, in  Veil, Alla (2008), ”Science and Fate: Lina Stern (1878–1968), A Neurophysiologist and Biochemist”, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(2), 195-206.


Living in Switzerland, I knew a number of the political emigrants…I took no part in political life, although I sympathized with the revolutionary movement in general. I was completely engaged in my scientific work. The imperialist war and its consequences forced me to ponder, causing protest against the existing capitalist system and, completely naturally, increasing sympathies to the revolutionary movement in Russia.

in Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences, F.1563.N1, 2, 3, translated by Veil, Alla (2008), ”Science and Fate: Lina Stern (1878–1968), A Neurophysiologist and Biochemist”, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(2), 195-206.


I do not want to take into the grave all that can still serve the Soviet Union and the whole world.

in Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences, F.1563.N1, 2, 3, translated by Veil, Alla (2008), ”Science and Fate: Lina Stern (1878–1968), A Neurophysiologist and Biochemist”, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(2), 195-206.



Lina Solomonovna Stern has passed away – out went the bright star, which for so long has lit up the horizon of Soviet and world physiology. Gone is the great toiler, whose motto of life was: “Work, work, work!

Kositksy Grigory Ivanovich, quoted by Veil, Alla (2008), ”Science and Fate: Lina Stern (1878–1968), A Neurophysiologist and Biochemist”, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(2), 195-206.

Most scientists manage to conduct their research by adjusting to the political and social situations surrounding them. Lina Stern did not follow this path. This small woman of complete devotion to science took the drastic decisions that altered her life. Though destiny was not kind to her, Lina Stern did not compromise. Despite a threat of execution, prolonged imprisonment, and exile she was never broken as a scientist and always maintained her dignity.

Veil, Alla (2008), ”Science and Fate: Lina Stern (1878–1968), A Neurophysiologist and Biochemist”, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(2), 195-206.



1902: Geneva University prize for her work on the internal secretion of kidneys ”Expérience sur la prétendu sécrétion interne des reins” in Revue Médicale de la Suisse Romande”.
1934: gained the title of ”Distinguished Scientist of the USSR” ( which came with a car as an award).
1934: Honourable place in the magazine ”Eminent women of Europe”.
1939: The first woman to be elected full member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.
1939: Elected to the Leopoldina Academy of Germany.
1943: Stalin State Prize for her lifetime achievements in Science.
1944: Admitted to the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.
1960:  Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Geneva.



While Lina Stern was wholeheartedly devoted to science, she did not shy away from public life and dedicated a significant portion of her time to advancing her political convictions. During her stay in Geneva, she befriended many Russian intellectuals and adopted their revolutionary anti-capitalist cause8 (p.205). This was a catalyst in the development of her future ideological beliefs and, during WWII, she published a number of antifascist articles and enthusiastically supported the war efforts of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany by drawing parallels between Soviet soldiers and the ancient Palestinian revolutionaries, the Maccabees and the Bar Kokhba18 (p.127). Moreover, she joined the Jewish anti-fascist committee, which was made up of influential Soviet Jews whose task was to mobilise international support, especially in the West, for the war effort of the Soviet Union23(p.55). As a member of the committee, she travelled to the USA and managed to secure significant support for its cause. She was also actively involved in the Geneva-based International Federation of University Women and contributed to the organisation with an article titled ”Science and Fascism”8(p.203).



”Expérience sur la prétendu sécrétion interne des reins” (1902) ,in Revue Médicale de la Suisse Romand.

with Battelli, Frederic (1912), ”Die Oxydationsfermente”, Ergeb Physiol 12,96–268.

”Le liquide céfalo-rachidien au point de vue de ses rapports avec la circulation sanguine et avec les éléments nerveux de l’axe cérébrospinal” (1921), Schweiz.Arch.Neurol. und Psychiatr, 8(2): 215–232.

with Gautier, Raymond, (1921), ”Recherches sur le liquide céphalo-rachidien”,, 17(2): 138–192.

with Gautier ,Raymond  (1922),”Recherches sur le liquide céphalo-rachidien. Les rapports entre le liquide céphalo-rachidien et les éléments nerveux de l’axe cérébrospinal., 17(4): 391–448.

with Peyrot, Rener (1927): ”Le fonctionnement de la barrière hématoencéphalique aux divers stades de développement chez diverses espèces animales”.,C.R. Soc. Biol.,Paris,  96, 1124–1126.

with Rapoport J, Lokschina. ES (1929): Le fonctionnement de la barrière hématoencéphalique chez les nouveaunés,SocBiol ,100, 231–233.

” Present state of the problem of hematoencephalic barrier”, Usp Sovrem Biol, 45(3), 328–348.



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