We begin our journey in St. Petersburg, where we meet
Maria Mikhailovna Manasseina
Kirov Military Medical Academy
In St. Petersburg, during the second half of the nineteenth century in the Russian Empire governed by Tsar Alexander III, the physician and scientist Maria Manasseina spent most of her life and developed her prolific career.
Maria Mikhailovna Manasseina, also known as Marie de Manaceine and Marie von Manassein, is one of the first women graduated in medicine in Russia and probably in the whole Europe, and her major contribution to neuroscience has been a very influential work on sleep deprivation. She traveled to many European countries to present the results of her studies and she published articles and books in French, English and German, in addition to the Russian language.
Polytechnic Institute in Vienna
Biochemistry. The proof of the “chemical” hypothesis of fermentation
In 1870-71 Manasseina spent several months at the Polytechnic Institute in Vienna, working with Julius Wiesner where she studied the process of alcoholic fermentation. While there, she made the seminal discovery that the process of fermentation is due to specific components that can be isolated from yeast cells (she called them “unorganized enzymes”) rather than the living yeast per se. These results confirmed the “chemical” hypothesis of fermentation, proposed by Claude Bernard and Justus Liebig, rather than the Louis Pasteur’s “physiological” hypothesis. It took more than twenty five years for the German chemist Eduard Buchner to replicate these results, and, although he was aware of Manasseina work, he did not cite or credit her. She wrote two letters in German to scientific journals (a German one and the Russian journal “Le physiologist russe”) in order to be recognized of her priority in this discovery, but without result. Buchner received the Nobel Prize in 1907 for this discovery and Manasseina’s name was completely forgotten.
Physiology and neuroscience. The effect of prolonged sleep deprivation
Maria Manasseina returned to Saint-Petersburg and she started to work with Professor Ivan Romanovich Tarkhanov, a friend of her husband Vyacheslav A. Manassein . Tarkhanov was interested in sleep problems and Manasseina, in his lab, conducted her investigations on sleep deprivation on puppies. She used 10 puppies 2-4 months old, fed by their mother and kept with every care except they were forced to a total insomnia (by keeping them constantly active). The total sleep deprivation was fatal after 4-5 days and puppies could not be rescued. For a comparison, dogs could be kept in complete starvation for 20-25 days and still be rescued by food administration after this time. Manasseina’s work had a huge impact on subsequent sleep studies. In 1898 three Italian investigators, Lamberto Daddi, Giulio Tarozzi, and Cesare Agostini performed the same experiment of sleep deprivation in dogs, and they broadened the finding with detailed anatomical and histopathological analysis of the dogs’ brains. In 1896 two American psychologists George T. V. Patrick and J. Allen Gilbert, clearly inspired by Manasseina’s pioneer work, performed the first study of sleep deprivation in humans.
Frontispiece of Manasseina’s book
Manasseina was an extremely prolific scientist and writer, and her publications span scientific papers and books about physiology, hygiene, psychology and pedagogy. Her book “Sleep as one Third of Human life: its physiology, pathology, hygiene, and psychology” published in English in 1897, is a translation and an expanded version of the Russian edition. It was considered the sleep encyclopedia at that time, translated in various languages and distributed in most of European countries. In this book, Manasseina analytically reviews the state of the art of the somnology of the era, reporting the results of her own experiments and the ones performed by others, in animal models and human subjects.
As an example, in the first chapter dedicated to physiology of sleep, she reports the experiments conducted by Ernst Kohlschütter and collaborators on deep sleep, where the experimenter was using a sudden noise to cause awakening in the sleeping subject.
Experimental curves of sleep depth (from “Sleep and its Physiology”, pp 30-33)
The quantification of the sleep depth was provided by dropping a metallic ball on a metallic surface from different heights, hypothesizing that the more profound was the sleep, the more noise would be necessary to wake up the subject. In this way the authors measured the depth of normal sleep and found the profiles represented in figure (curves of sleep).
Manasseina describes also her own results in the book, including the experiments on sleep deprivation, and she concludes that sleep is necessary as “nutrition and reconstitution of the (cerebral) tissue“. She concludes this chapter enhancing the importance of sleep as a particular state of the brain activity, rather than the absence of activity, as it was commonly viewed at the time. This was a remarkable intuition, considering that the electroencephalogram did not exist yet.
“At the same time we must remember that sleep is not an absolute arrest of cerebral activity. The brain remains partially active, only sleeping in so far as it is the anatomical basis of full consciousness. Byron was certainly right when he said that our life is composed of two distinct existences, for sleep is a world apart:
“Our life is twofold; sleep has its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and Existence: sleep has its own world.” (In italics in original)
It is necessary to study seriously and fundamentally this part of life, for on that study depends the solution of other essential questions of our existence.”
A portrait of young Maria Manasseina
Biography. Maria Mikhailovna Korkunova was the daughter of Professor Mikhail Andreevich Korkunov, a well known historian and archeologist. While still a student, she married Poniatovsky (first name unknown), and they both participated in revolutionary circles.
For this activity, her husband was arrested and died shortly after that. She remarried in 1865 to Vyacheslav Avksentievich Manassein, who later became a prominent personality in the medical field in Russia. After coming back from Vienna, she started to work with Manassein’s friend, Professor Ivan Romanovich Tarkhanov, and she soon left her husband for him, although she never legally divorced Manassein.
Dedication to her daughter Tatiana
It is not reported that she had children from these relationships, but a dedication to her daughter Tatiana is found at the beginning of her book “L’anarchie passive et le comte Leon Tolstoy”. In this book, written in French, Manasseina openly criticized the political view of Leo Tolstoy.
(page 24, Chapter 5) “…count Tolstoy has a great tendency to erect as general rules all his personal ideas, but he sometimes feels the need to rely on the testimonies he has been able to collect from other people, and he cites the different religious sects, in Russia and elsewhere, who refuse to pay taxes, to take an oath and to perform compulsory military service. At the same time, Count Tolstoy remarks that, in recent times, such refusals have been opposed many times by persons belonging to the educated classes, whereas previously he met only among the lower classes; and he sees in this fact a plan that the ideas of Christianity have gained ground. He does not explain how it is that the sublime truths of Christianity were, in this way, more quickly understood by ignorant, rude and imbued with superstitions, than intelligent and educated people.”
Around the Eighteen-nineties, Manasseina was invited to give public lectures in auditoriums in Solyany gorodok (Salt town), in the center of St. Petersburg, on topics related to psychology, brain physiology and especially pedagogy, and the attendance was always very high.
Manasseina’s political view transitioned from liberal and revolutionary in her young age to reactionary, later in her life. It is not known if she embraced this view for convenience, since as single woman in the tsarist Russia, she would have had very limited freedom of working, engaging in public activities and traveling without the protection of the Tsarist family, or because her point of view genuinely changed while she was aging.
Picture of Maria Manasseina in her obituary
For her literary activity, the tsar Alexander III established for her a lifelong pension and his son, tsar Nikolay II, gave her a bonus of 10,000 rubles that was an enormous amount of money for that time.
Manasseina died in St. Petersburg on March 17, 1903.
We gratefully acknowledge Vladimir Kovalzon, Philipp Valko and Marina Bentivoglio for sharing their material and their information about the work and life of Maria Manasseina.
To cite this profile, please use the following format:
Favero, M., Mele, S. and Metitieri, T. (2017). Profile of Maria Mikhailovna Manasseina. In WiNEu, European Women in Neuroscience, Untold stories: the Women Pioneers of Neuroscience in Europe. Retrieved from https://wineurope.eu/manasseina-2/
- de Manacéïne M. (1894): Quelques observations expérimentales sur l’influence de l’insomnie absolue. Archives Italiennes de Biologie 21: 322–325.
- de Manacéïne M. (1895): L’anarchie passive et le comte Leon Tolstoi. Paris, F. Alcan.
- de Manacéïne M. (1897): Sleep: Its Physiology, Pathology, Hygiene and Psychology. London, Walter Scott.
- Bentivoglio M., Grassi-Zucconi G. (1997): The pioneering experimental studies on sleep deprivation. Sleep 20: 570-576.
- Kovalzon V.M. (2009): Some notes on the biography of Maria Manasseina. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 18: 312-319.
- Lagnado J (1992): Was the first biochemist a woman? Biochemist 14: 21–22.
- Semenenko A. (1903): Manasseina M.M. (Obituary) Niva 13: 257-258.
- Vinokurov S.I., Chagovets R.V. (1950): [Maria Manasseina and her contribution to the discovery of acellular fermentation]. Biokhimiia 15: 558-562.