Rediscover STEAM
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Rediscover STEAM

Vera Danchakoff, Stem Cell Biologist

As Russians commonly say, “Без му́ки нет нау́ки” (Adversity is a good teacher). For Vera Danchakoff, these words never hinged on her valiant and tenacious mentality as she pursued her continuum for greatness. Born to parents and a traditional society conforming to patriarchal virtues, Vera Danchakoff never fell victim to the limiting cultural and societal norms imposed on her as a woman. She challenged herself to test the system and prevail as Russia’s inaugural female professor while simultaneously defying standards and pioneering stem cell research and embryology. Danchakoff deserves far more than the accreditation she receives today. From her triumphant revelations to her identity as a mother, she is often disparaged for her spontaneous death.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia as Vera Mikhailovna Grigorevskay on March 21, 1897, she was nurtured in “mundane” or “feminine” career pursuits — particularly within drawing or music, which she exhibited distinction in. Nonetheless, Danchakoff never succumbed to the demands of the patriarchy and continued to pursue greater academic prospects. She eventually left St. Petersburg to pursue a natural sciences degree prior to transferring to Lausanne University in Switzerland for a medical degree. Her academic endeavors did not end at Lausanne. She returned to her homeland, enrolling at Kharkov University for an additional medical degree. Dankachoff became the preliminary recipient of a medical sciences doctorate at St. Petersburg Academy of Medicine — Russia’s first medical college for women. Danchakoff later settled with her husband, Mikhail, and had her daughter in 1902 prior to emigrating to the United States in 1915.

Although she filled her spare time with performances alongside renowned pianists, Danchakoff never lost sight of her true ambitions in the medical sciences. In 1908, Dankachoff was employed as an assistant professor for histology and embryology at Moscow University. She established herself as the inaugural female professor within the entirety of the nation. Danchakoff left the post in 1915 and emigrated to New York. In New York, she espoused both her political and scientific interests by writing as the New York correspondent of the Moscow Newspaper, Utro Rossi (Russian Morning). Synchronously, Danchakoff worked with the American Relief Administration to disseminate information and enlighten populaces on the significant inconveniences that Russian scientists experienced, particularly during World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. As both momentous campaigns subsided, other threats continued to resurge within Russia. The Russian Famine of 1921–1922 took center stage, stimulating food shortages and starvation nationwide. Danchakoff employed her international disposition to lobby and request food parcels and alternate supplements to be delivered to Russia. She also made her communicative exchanges transparent with Russian scientists regarding their deprivation of rudimentary resources.

Despite her political momentum, Danchakoff remained faithful to her scientific proclivities and sought employment at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. Danchakoff worked at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons as an anatomical instructor and professor. She disseminated, educated, and theorized scientific prospects that evolved into dogmas concerning the differentiation capabilities of stem cells while at the college. Her work earned her the title “Mother of Stem Cells.” She argued that the common morphological anatomy unit, the stem cell, functioned as the basis of all cells before then specializing, differentiating, and developing into other hematopoietic (blood) cells. In November 1915, during Danchakoff’s lecture “Origin of the Blood Cells”, she theorized that although hematopoietic stem cells (stem cells that give rise to blood cells) have different functions and physiological properties, they are still derived from the same breed of stem cells and experience the same premature embryonic phases.

With such revelation, Danchakoff theorized that stem cells were not only proficient in specialization and tissue regeneration but were able to cause proliferation and abnormal abundance in the concentration of certain cells. Danchakoff published the first English scientific paper employing the term “stem cell” when explaining how the varied blood cells coming from a bird’s thymus originated from one type of cell. Nevertheless, the universal community of scientists remained incessantly hostile and reluctant to accept this newfound revelation. The international scientific community remained negligent in adopting Danchakoff’s revolutionary findings — from embryonic and phylogenetic developments within the blood to the pathological abnormalities that stem cells may cause anatomically.

Despite the adversarial tones of the scientific community, Danchakoff saw great potential in the applications of stem cells and their specialized properties to medicine. By 1919, Danchakoff became a full-fledged scientist at Columbia University and was pursuing collaborative investigations with other scientists — such as James Bumgardner Murphy. The two injected adult lymphocytes within a chick embryo, which stimulated spleen enlargement, promoting understanding of the plausibility of lymphocyte migration and the provocation of graft-versus-host disease. In 1937, Danchakoff made strides once again during her recruitment at the Department of Histology and Embryology at the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences. She produced an abundance of research papers and books solidifying her hypothesis. From 1949 to 1950, she published research on the effects of cancer-provoking chemicals, such as benzene.

Because of her untimely death, Danchakoff was never present to witness how her revelations surpassed her, molding them into one of science’s most fundamental dogmas. From functioning as an empowering female figure defying standards to become the manifestation of brains and motherhood, Danchakoff’s discoveries immortalize her as one of the most revolutionary scientists in history. Vera Danchakoff may not be as renowned today as her male counterparts, but her unique narrative amplifies her as one of the poignant figures in stem cell discoveries and the ultimate pioneer of stem cell specialization. No one was truly a match for Vera Danchakoff.

References

Akerzhenrman, Alia. “Vera Danchakoff.” Women’s Activism NYC, 17 July 2020, www.womensactivism.nyc/stories/4878. Accessed August 5, 2020

Danchakoff, Vera. “Origin of the Blood Cells. Development of the Hematopoietic Organs and Regeneration of the Blood Cells from the Standpoint of the Monophyletic School.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2 Feb. 2005, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ar.1090100506. Accessed August 5, 2020

Haynes, Zoey. “Vera Danchakoff.” Prezi.com, 24 Sept. 2019, prezi.com/p/zvk6tox_1jrm/vera-danchakoff/. Accessed August 5, 2020

Lichtman, MA. “The Stem Cell in the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Myelogenous Leukemia: a Perspective.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 4 Oct. 2001, www.nature.com/articles/2402247. Accessed August 5, 2020

Nora. “The Differences: Multiple Myeloma — Vera Danchakoff and Geraldine Ferraro.” VintagePillbox, 24 Jan. 2020, www.vintagepillbox.com/post/the-differences-multiple-myeloma-vera-danchakoff-and-geraldine-ferraro. Accessed August 5, 2020

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