Ion Cantacuzino: A Prince on the Anti-Virus Front
Updated: May 27
The heir of one of the oldest Romanian ruling families descending from Byzantine emperors, Ion Cantacuzino (1863-1934) is one of our greatest medical figures, author of consequential research and creator of crucial institutions. In Romania, the first vaccines – against typhoid fever, cholera, diphtheria, and tuberculosis – were produced in his laboratories, in a time when their availability was, as it is today, a matter of life and death.
Ion Cantacuzino was born on November, 25, 1863, in Bucharest. A prodigal child, at 6 he was already studying Latin, followed at 9 by Ancient Greek as well as French and German. At 16, he enrolled in the famous Louis Le Grand High School and then, in 1882, in the Paris Faculty of Arts. After earning a degree in philosophy in 1885, he switched to sciences and later, in 1887, to medicine. In 1888 we find him as medical extern at Charité Hospital and then Cochim Hospital, some of the most advanced medical facilities in the world at the time. In 1891 he published his first scientific paper about the result of his research on the link between hysteria and sclerosis. In 1891 he earned his degree in natural sciences together with Emil Racoviță, later a famous geographer, with whom he remained close all his life. In July 1894 he passed his doctorate in medicine with the thesis, Researches on the Ways to Eradicate the Vibrio Cholera from the Body.
Back in Romania, Ion Cantacuzino joined for a while the Faculty of Sciences in Iași where, despite the modest resources, opened a laboratory for hematology research. Between 1896 and 1901, we find him again in Paris, working with influential Ilya Mechnikov from the Pasteur Institute. During this time, his research was focused on the Vibrio cholera.
In the fall of 1901, Cantacuzino returned to Romania where, at Mechnikov’s warm recommendation, became the head of the newly created department of experimental medicine within the Bucharest Faculty of Medicine. He established there the first experimental medicine laboratory in Romania, which, while initially destined for pure research, was soon tasked by the authorities to produce two important serums for preventive medicine: the anti-streptococcal serum and the anti-diphtheria serum. Cantacuzino’s laboratory was soon recognized not only as a hotbed of research and experimentation but also as an essential piece of medical and pharmacological infrastructure. In the following years several vaccines, including those against typhoid and cholera, were produced there on a large scale.
In 1913, during the Balkan Wars, the cholera vaccine prepared in Cantacuzino’s laboratory from strains isolated in Bulgaria managed to stop the spread of the epidemic in the army, a success that brought Cantacuzino international praise. The success also prompted leading clinician Iuliu Hațieganu to call him “the treating physician of the entire Romanian nation.”
In 1908 Ion Cantacuzino was appointed director of the Romanian Medical Service. In this capacity, in 1910 he urged the adoption of a new medical law, named after him, which proved particularly instrumental in fighting epidemics. According to its provisions, the doctors were to be selected through competition and formally appointed only after an internship. They were also compelled to attend specialty courses to update their knowledge on the new developments in medical science. For better coping with the epidemics, hospitals, quarantine hospitals, and rural clinics were established.
In 1914 Cantacuzino’s laboratory was entrusted with a new task: the preparation of a diphtheria vaccine. No later than two years later, the laboratory was already producing 15,000 doses a year. Once Romania joined the Allied Powers in the First World War, Cantacuzino was appointed the head of the Directorate for Civil and Military Public Health, which under extremely severe conditions worked to mitigate the devastating effects of cholera, typhoid fever, exanthematous typhus, and recurring fever on the military and the civilians.
In 1918 Ion Cantacuzino was back in France as chief of the Romanian Red Cross mission and fought epidemics in Marseilles. He was invited to hold a series of conferences on cholera and exanthematous typhus at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris and the Academy in Marseilles. On June 4, 1920, Cantacuzino was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Trianon, which recognized the unification of the Romanian historical provinces, Transylvania, Banat, Crișana, and Maramureș, with the Kingdom of Romania.
In 1921 Romania’s Institute for Serums and Vaccines was officially established. Later it was renamed as Ion Cantacuzino National Institute for Research and Development to honor its great founder.
In 1925, in recognition of his tremendous medical contribution, Ion Cantacuzino was elected to the Romanian Academy. One year later, thanks to his work, Romania became the second country in the world after France to introduce the BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin) vaccine, based on germs with attenuated virulence and used for the prophylactic vaccination of newborns against tuberculosis. Between 1931 and 1932, Cantacuzino was Minister of Health in the government of famous historian Nicolae Iorga who described him as “fully embodying power, will, and human intelligence.” He died on 14 January1934.
Reference book: Avram, Sorin, Bădescu, Emanuel, Român, Cristian, and Vişinescu, Mihai (coord.), Ionescu, Florin (consultant), 100 Romanian Innovators, foreword by Basarab Nicolescu, translated by Emilia Bratu, Bucharest, Romanian Cultural Institute Press, 2017