Wikipedia: Zinaida Ermolieva

by Mike

Zinaida Vissarionovna Ermolieva (Russian: Зинаида Виссарионовна Ермольева; 15 October 1898 [O.S. 27 October] – 2 December 1974) was a Russian microbiologist and epidemiologist who led the Soviet effort to generate penicillin during the Second World War.


Born on a farm in the Frolovo region, Ermolieva attended school in Novocherkassk and studied medicine at Don University in Rostov-on-Don (now part of Southern Federal University), graduating in 1921. Continuing to work at Don University’s bacteriological institute, she collaborated with Nina Kliueva on a study on encephalitis lethargica [1], before moving to Moscow in 1925. There she worked at the People’s Commissariat of Health, as head of microbiology at a biochemical institute [2] that would later be named for its founder Aleksey Nikolayevich Bakh [3]. Early in her career she was known for her work on characterizing lysozyme and employing it as an antimicrobial agent [4].

During the Second World War Ermolieva became famous for her role in the independent Soviet effort to extract penicillin from mold, using the species Penicillium crustosum [4] (rather than P. notatum, the species employed by Alexander Fleming and other British scientists). To test this penicillin treatment, she was one of many scientists to travel to Abkhazia and make use of the monkey colonies at Sukhumi’s Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy [5].

Ermolieva also led the efforts to control a cholera outbreak in Stalingrad, as part of which she spent six months in the besieged city, and was credited with creating a bacteriophage-based vaccine against Vibrio cholerae in addition to developing the new Soviet source for penicillin.

Now an eminent scientist and patriotic hero, she was awarded the State Stalin Prize and spent the rest of her career in Moscow, being named director of the All-Union Research Institute for Antibiotics in 1947, and chair of the department of microbiology at the Central Postgraduate Medical Institute in 1952. She was also a founder and editor of the Moscow-based journal Antibiotiki [4]. According to Soviet propaganda, Ermolieva chose to redirect the proceeds from her Stalin Prize into building fighter jets, one of which was inscribed with her name. She was also publicly recognized as a self-experimenter, reportedly swallowing 1.5 billion cells of a glowing blue Vibrio strain in order to show that it caused a cholera-like illness [7].

Ermolieva was named an Academician of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences in 1965, and was named an Honored Scientist of the RSFSR in 1970 [8]. She received other state honors including the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, the Order of the Badge of Honour, and the Order of Lenin. Credited with over 500 scientific papers and as adviser for 34 doctoral theses in her career, Zinaida Vissarionovna Ermolieva died in Moscow in 1974.

Personal Life

Ermolieva was married twice, both times to fellow microbiologists. She was important in the efforts to free her ex-husband Lev Alexandrovich Zilber, who had been imprisoned in labor camps on suspicions of spying for Germany and misusing his research on tick-borne encephalitis virus and Japanese encephalitis virus [9]. Zilber was freed permanently in 1944 and later rehabilitated in the eyes of the Kremlin, receiving several of the same state honors as Ermolieva [10]. Her second husband, Aleksey Aleksandrovich Zakharov, was also a microbiologist who was denounced during the Second World War, and died in a prison hospital in 1940 [11].

She became a model for aspiring Soviet female scientists as the basis for protagonist Tatiana Vlasenkova in The Open Book, a trilogy of novels written between 1949 and 1956 by Veniamin Alexandrovich Kaverin, the brother of Lev Zilber [12]. The Open Book was adapted in feature film form in 1973 [13], and as a television series in 1977 [14]. She is also the basis for the character Anna Valerievna Dyachenko in the Russian TV series “Black Cats” (Чёрные кошки), set in postwar Rostov-on-Don [15].


1. Krementsov, Nikolai (2007). The Cure: A Story of Cancer and Politics from the Annals of the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 40. ISBN 9780226452845.


3. Kretovich, W.L. (1983), “A.N. Bach, Founder of Soviet School of Biochemistry”. in Semenza, G. Selected Topics in the History of Biochemistry: Personal Recollections (Comprehensive Biochemistry Vol. 35). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers. p. 346.

4.(pdf) S. Navashin (1975), Obituary of Prof. Zinaida Vissarionovna Ermolieva, The Journal of Antibiotics vol. XXVIII, no. 5, p. 399.


7. Fiks, Arsen P (2003). Self-Experimenters: Sources for Study. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. p. 70.

8. “Zinaida Ermol’eva”. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd edition (1970-1979).

9. Zlobin, V.I. et al. (2005). “Tick-Borne Encephalitis”. in Ebert, Ryan A. Progress in Encephalitis Research. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2005. p.32. ISBN 1-59454-345-3.

10. “Lev Zil’ber”. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd edition (1970-1979).


12. Eremeeva, Anna (2006). “The Woman Scientist in Soviet Artistic Discourse”. in Saurer, Edith; Lanzinger, Margareth; Frysak, Elisabeth. Women’s Movements: Networks and Debates in Post-Communist Countries in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Köln: Böhlau Verlag GmbH & Cie. p. 347. ISBN 9783412322052.




All facts not otherwise cited are from the Russian Wikipedia page on Zinaida Ermolieva, accessed via Google Translate on 24 August 2014.