Kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and yogurt all are popular in today’s society because of their taste and many health benefits, yet few of us know that the groundbreaking discovery of probiotics was made more than 100 years ago in Poland.
The amazing story of the young chemist who revealed the power and potential of probiotic, or “for life,” bacteria was only fully revealed this year in a new book launched in November by York University Professor Romana Bahry.
But that’s jumping ahead in this intriguing detective story.
The discovery of “for-life” bacteria
In 1912, society was a long way from understanding the healthy benefits yielded by probiotic bacteria. In that same year, a young chemist working on his doctoral studies in Vienna published his discovery of a Lactobacillus bacterium found in huslanka, a fermented milk product made by Ukrainian Carpathian shepherds known as the Hutsuls. (Huslanka, like kefir, is reported to help lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and like other fermented milk products, it contains compounds that are antioxidant or immune-stimulating.) That chemist, Wladmir (Włodzimierz) Kindraczuk, named the new species of bacteria Bacillus carpathicus.
As a contrast to how pioneering this discovery was, consider that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the antibiotic or “against-life” compound, more than a decade and a half later in 1928. Kindraczuk published his paper documenting his discovery of Bacillus carpathicus in 1912. His discovery and the credit for it was then promptly buried in the ensuing turmoil of the First and Second World Wars, the deadly Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20 and the political and social upheaval of the past century in Eastern Europe.
A conversation in Canada sparks an investigation
The Second World War forced Kindraczuk to flee Poland and eventually, in 1951 he emigrated with his family to Canada. Years later, he told his granddaughter about his groundbreaking discovery while she was growing up in Hamilton, Ont. That granddaughter is Bahry, a professor of Comparative Literature (Slavic and English) and East European Film & Culture in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University.
Starting in the 1970s, Bahry began to untangle the story behind her grandfather’s discovery and the cultural upheaval of his life, a quest that has taken her years to complete. Her research adventures took her from rented cars, through KGB-escorted routes, to libraries, archives and genealogical societies around the world. She likens this journey to the research into the RMS Titanic that sank in 1912, the year of her grandfather’s publication. But it was in 2009, after sleuthing the internet, that Bahry discovered the journal article describing her grandfather’s discovery of Bacillus carpathicus hiding on the shelves of the Gerstein Science Information Centre Library at the University of Toronto.
The buried treasures of the Titanic are public and now, after 13 years of research and writing, Bahry has published the story of her grandfather’s life and discovery of the probiotic potential of Bacillus carpathicus in a new book, with the assistance of York University’s Printing Services and its print-on-demand publishing service. That book, titled Dr. W.S. Kindraczuk, Forgotten Chemist of Lancut & Pioneer of Probiotics, is impeccably researched and lavishly illustrated with artifacts and historical photographs culled from the thousands of documents Bahry uncovered.
Her journey, and that of her grandfather, are documented in an engaging manner, with a Polish translation, index and extensive references and notes. Preliminary results of her research were presented at an international genealogical conference in Warsaw, Poland, and the book was launched in November at the Toronto Ukrainian Genealogy Group conference at the St. Vladimir Institute in Toronto.
The book is available at the York University Bookstore and online at bookstore.yorku.ca.