ISSN 1062-3604, Russian Journal of Developmental Biology, 2008, Vol. 39, No. 6, pp. 374–376. © Pleiades Publishing, Inc., 2008.
Original Russian Text © A.I. Vorob’ev, 2008, published in Ontogenez, 2008, Vol. 39, No. 6, pp. 462–464.
The literal meaning of seminar (from Latin) is “seed
plot;” its ﬁgurative meaning is “school.” The literal
meaning is more applicable to the Gelfand’s Seminar.
The participants specialized in different ﬁelds, but
most of them were biologists and medical doctors.
How it all began. Gelfand’s younger son got acute
leukemia. Israel Moiseevich visited the most popular
Soviet hematologist I.A. Kassirsky. As far as I remem-
ber, it happened in 1959 or 1960. Acute leukemia was
diagnosed by the head of the Hematological Depart-
ment of Cancer Research Center Yu.I. Lorie, who used
the treatment strategy accepted at that time: a course of
prednisolone and purinethol. The boy immediately felt
better, and his blood count improved. But according to
the prognosis, this temporary improvement had to be
followed by deterioration and inevitable death.
Israel Moiseevich could not bear that nothing could
be done to reverse the bad prognosis. He wanted to
understand the essence of the disease. That is why he
came to Kassirsky.
Acute leukemia is manifested as unrestrained prolif-
eration of the youngest hematopoietic cells. They ﬁll up
the bone marrow and interfere with normal hemato-
poiesis. A patient suffers from insufﬁcient number of
erythrocytes, no immunity, and no platelets that prevent
bleeding. It was clear that proliferating young cells,
blasts, often abnormally shaped, are the evil. Not long
before, a similar picture was observed in hematopoiesis
in pernicious anemia patients: their bone marrow had
plenty of abnormally shaped erythroid cells, while
blood erythrocytes were deﬁcient, and patients died
from oxygen carrier deﬁciency. After the discovery of
vitamin B12, its course proved to cure such patients:
abnormally shaped erythroid precursor cells disap-
peared from the bone marrow.
When Alexander Gelfand fell sick, all guides in
hematology and probably most hematologists consid-
ered leukemogenesis as a systemic disturbance of cell
differentiation: cells were lacking something for nor-
mal maturation. Leukemia resembled pernicious ane-
mia so much!
However, an alternative hypothesis suggested that
leukemia results from a mutation of a single cell rather
than from hypovitaminosis or viral transformation of
cells; in this case, all cancer cells are clonal, i.e.,
descend from a single mutant cell with uncontrolled
cell divisions. Leukemia clonality was proposed by
brilliant Russian histologist A.A. Maximov (as far as I
remember, in the “Handbook in Histology” in 1918). It
remained unnoticed then: I have found no references.
But clonality of chronic myelosis has been conﬁrmed
when chromosomal analysis appeared in 1959.
When I worked in the Kassirsky’s clinic, I proposed
to extend the clonality hypothesis to all tumors of the
blood system based on the clonality of chronic myelo-
sis. Strictly speaking, the idea of clonality triumphed
over the idea of primarily systemic leukemogenesis
generally accepted and declared in all Kassirsky’s pub-
Coming back to the Gelfand’s visit to Kassirsky.
Kassirsky in his ofﬁce tediously (since he was tired of
talking with an incompetent man) explained to Gelfand
what acute leukemia is. I dropped in on some occasion.
Kassirsky was glad to ask me to tell my views about
leukemia. He teased me about them (his disciple chal-
lenged all leading ﬁgures!) but never interfered with my
work. The following events were prompt (later I
learned that Gelfand catches the idea from the ﬁrst
words). He turned his back on Kassirsky, listened to the
bases of leukemia clonal theory, and promptly con-
cluded that viruses have nothing to do with it (viral leu-
kemogenesis was another hypothesis). He almost impo-
litely said goodbye, left the ofﬁce with me, and imme-
diately told me that he does not intend to ﬁnd a remedy
against leukemia but considers this process closely
related to cell differentiation (since patients suffer from
normal blood cell deﬁciency), and that he wants to
attract competent biologists to the problem.
I think, that was how the idea of the Seminar was
All my life I considered the Gelfand’s Seminar on
biology (he also led a seminar on mathematics) has
played a prominent role in the development of Soviet
biology and its best representatives. Although I realize
that it is not an absolutely reliable marker, it may be
representative enough that at least 10 members of the
Biological Department of the Russian Academy of Sci-
ences participated in the Gelfand’s Seminar. All of them
came to the Seminar as postdocs or PhD students.
There was confusion when I said that Israel Moi-
seevich is our teacher in this company. Some consid-
ered Belozersky, Engelhardt, or Zilber as their teachers.
My case was simpler. In terms of profession, I am a dis-
ciple of Kassirsky (and successor of his Department) as
well as of A.L. Myasnikov and V.Kh. Vasilenko (prom-
inent therapists of the recent past); but in terms of
research, I am a disciple of Gelfand. I rarely made pre-
sentations at the Seminar, rather I learned a lot.
HISTORY OF SCIENCE
I.M. GELFAND’S SEMINAR ON BIOLOGY
Israel Moiseevich Gelfand’s Seminar on Biology