Lina Shtern with other prominent Soviet women, mid-1940s(?). Pictured (from left to right): the highly decorated fighter pilot Polina Gelman, the mathematician Pelegeia Kochina, Shtern, and the opera singer Deborah Pantofel-Nechetskaia. (The State Archives of the Russian Federation. Print courtesy Joshua Rubenstein)

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Shtern, Lina Solomonovna

(1878–1968), biologist and physiologist. Born in Russian-controlled Courland, which later became part of Latvia, Lina Shtern studied at Geneva University, where she also later worked, becoming a full professor—the university’s first female professor—in 1917. She settled in the Soviet Union in 1925 and held leading academic positions. In her first post (1925–1948) she served as head of the physiology department at the Second Moscow University (after a reorganization of 1930, the department was part of the Second Moscow Medical Institute). Simultaneously, Shtern was director of the Physiology Institute of the Academy of Medical Sciences from 1929 to 1948 and became the first female member of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1939. She joined the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences in 1944.

Shtern made important contributions to the study of human physiology and to medical research, notably through her pioneering work on the hematoencephalic (blood–brain) barrier, for which she received the Stalin Prize in 1943. During World War II, her findings had a direct impact on the treatment of soldiers suffering from trauma and head wounds, for whom she prescribed injections through the cranium. Shtern also used innovative techniques in applying streptomycin, which had been discovered in the United States during World War II: she was the first doctor to treat tubercular meningitis with an intracranial injection of the antibiotic.

Shtern was an internationalist by conviction and could not believe that anti-Jewish discrimination was permitted, let alone encouraged or initiated, by the Soviet leadership. In 1943, she received instructions to dismiss two Jewish employees from the staff of the Biulleten’ eksperimental’noi biologii i meditsiny (Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine), of which she was editor in chief. Demanding an explanation, Shtern was told that a Central Committee resolution dictated reductions in the number of Jews on the editorial staff, as well as in managerial and other positions in medicine. In protest, she wrote to Stalin, insisting that anti-Jewish policies were more characteristic of the country’s enemy. Although Central Committee Secretary Georgii Malenkov assured Shtern that the editorial board of her journal would remain untouched by the decree, her appeal to Stalin was later used as proof of her Jewish “bourgeois nationalism.”

As a woman academician and a world-renowned scientist with wide connections in the international scientific community, Shtern was appointed by Central Committee Secretary and Sovinformburo Chief Aleksandr Shcherbakov to four of the five anti-Fascist committees set up in late 1941 and early 1942—the committees of Soviet scientists, women, and youth, and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC). She had, indeed, been active from the outbreak of the war in sociopolitical issues, in particular regarding equal rights for professional women. She was not, however, permitted to correspond directly with foreign scientists but was obliged to channel all correspondence through the Academy of Sciences.

In 1947, Shtern was not permitted to travel to a scientific conference in Switzerland. The following year, she began to be discredited publicly. An article and then a book disparaged her scientific research, and the institute she headed was reorganized and transferred to Leningrad, an act tantamount to its dismantling. After she was outspoken at a session of the All-Union Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, a meeting that confirmed Stalin’s “materialist,” “progressive,” and “patriotic” agrobiologist protégé Trofim Lysenko as a genius of Soviet science, her scientific conceptions were condemned at a conference in October 1948; she was also charged with “cosmopolitanism.” Arrested in January 1949, she was brought to trial more than three years later together with 14 other people connected with the JAC.

Shtern showed considerable courage during the interrogations to which she was subjected and again at the JAC trial in 1952, where she maintained her innocence and highlighted the inhumanity of the interrogation process and the absurdity of the charges brought against her. She was the only one of the accused not sentenced to death, receiving three and a half years in a correctional labor camp and a further five years of internal exile, in accordance with a decision made by State Security Minister Semen Ignat’ev and endorsed by the Politburo more than a month before the trial opened. In later years, she maintained that she never understood the nature of the charges brought against her personally and against the JAC as a whole.

Given amnesty in 1953, Shtern returned to Moscow and was subsequently fully rehabilitated and reinstated in the Communist Party. She became head of a research laboratory and headed a department at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Biophysics from 1954 to 1968, continuing her scientific work on barrier mechanisms in the human body until the end of her life.

Suggested Reading

V. B. Malkin, “Trudnye gody Liny Shtern,” in Tragicheskie sud’by: Repressirovannye uchenye Akademii Nauk SSSR, ed. Viktor A. Kumanev, pp. 156–181 (Moscow, 1995); Iakov L’vovich Rapoport, The Doctors’ Plot of 1953 (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), pp. 234–253; Shimon Redlich, War, Holocaust and Stalinism (Luxembourg, 1995); Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov, eds., Stalin’s Secret Pogrom, trans. Laura Esther Wolfson (New Haven, 2001), pp. 1–64, 400–416, and 429–430.