Levon (also known as Leon) Orbeli was the middle brother in a family of scientists and an important physiologist, mostly active in Russia, who made important contributions to this discipline.
Orbeli was born in Darachichak (nowadays Tzaghkadzor), in Armenia, on June 25, 1882. He was the brother of archaeologist Ruben Orbeli (1880-1943) and orientalist Hovsep (Iosif) Orbeli (1887-1961). The family descended from the princely Orbelian family, which ruled over the region of Siunik between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The future scientist graduated from the Russian gymnasium in Tiflis in 1899 and continued his studies at the Imperial Military-Medical Academy of St. Petersburg. He was still a second-course student, when he started working in the laboratory of famous physiologist Ivan Pavlov in 1901, the same year when Pavlov developed the concept of conditioned reflex. Orbeli's life and scientific career would be closely connected with Pavlov’s work for the next thirty-five years.
He graduated from the Military Medical Academy in 1904 and became an intern at the Naval Hospital in the Russian capital. He joined Pavlov as his assistant in the Department of Physiology at the Institute for Experimental Medicine from 1907 to 1920. He was sent abroad to do research from 1909-11, working in Germany, England, and Italy.
Afterwards, Orbeli occupied many top positions in the Russian scientific world. He was head of the laboratory of physiology at the P. F. Lesgaft Scientific Institute in Leningrad (the new name for St. Petersburg during the Soviet times) from 1918 to 1957. Meantime, he was professor of physiology at the First Leningrad Medical Institute (1920-1931) and at the Military-Medical Academy (1925-1950), which he also directed from 1943 to 1950.
In 1932 he entered the USSR Academy of Sciences as corresponding member and was elected academician in 1935. After Pavlov’s death, Orbeli became Russia’s most prominent scientist. He developed a new scientific discipline, evolutionary physiology, consistently applying the principles of Darwinism. He devoted particular attention to the application of the principles of evolution to the study of all the nervous subsystems in animals and man. He promoted the study of human physiology, especially vital activity under unusual and extreme conditions. His more than 200 works on experimental and theoretical science included 130 journal articles.
Levon Orbeli was director of the Institute of Physiology of the Academy (1936-1950) and of the Institute of Evolutionary Physiology of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences (1939-1950), where he was elected academician in 1944. He served as vice-president of the USSR Academy of Sciences (1942-1946), where he founded and headed the Institute of Evolutionary Physiology in 1956. He was an academician of the Armenian Academy of Sciences in 1943 (his brother Hovsep was the founder) and had an important legacy in the development of physiology in Armenia. The Institute of Physiology of the Academy of Sciences carries his name.
He received many honors for his extraordinary scientific work. He was member of many foreign societies and earned the State Prize of the USSR (1941) and two important prizes of the Soviet Academy of Sciences In 1937 and 1946. He was bestowed with many decorations, including the title of Hero of Socialist Labor in 1945.
In the last years of Stalin’s life, sciences became the target of state repression. At a joint session of the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1950, the official doctrine of “Pavlovism” was promulgated and many prominent physiologists, including Orbeli, were denigrated and blamed for being non-Marxists, reactionaries, and having Western sympathies. Like many others who were victim of these political games, Orbeli would be rehabilitated after the death of Stalin in 1953.
He passed away on December 9, 1958, in Leningrad, where he was buried. A museum in the town of Tzaghkadzor (Armenia), inaugurated in 1982 (picture), on the centennial of Levon Orbeli’s birth, is dedicated to the three Orbeli brothers.