A native of Cherson (Kherson), Ukraine, Jacques Jacob Bronfenbrenner studied at the Imperial University of Odessa (1902-1906). While a student, he was a member of the Social Revolutionary Party and may have been a follower of Leon Trotsky. Marked for arrest by the tsarist regime, Bronfenbrenner fled the Russian Empire and found a haven as a student at the Institut Pasteur in Paris (1907-1909). While in Paris, he worked in the laboratories of Elie Metchnikoff (Ilya Ilich Mechnikov, 1845-1916), who won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for discovery of phagocytosis and with other Russian emigre scientists, notably Alexandre Besredka. Much of Bronfenbrenner's early laboratory research was based on Besredka's fundamental discoveries in antiviral therapies.
Bronfenbrenner's mentors at the Institut Pasteur made possible his collaboration with Hideyo Noguchi (1876-1928), a Japanese microbiologist working at the Rockefeller Institute in New York. Simon Flexner, director of laboratories at Rockefeller, sponsored Bronfenbrenner's moving to New York in 1909 and hired him as a research fellow. There he investigated techniques for serum diagnosis of infectious diseases. To further his formal academic training, Bronfenbrenner also enrolled at Columbia University. He received his Ph.D. in 1912 from Columbia under William J. Gies, but his primary teachers remained Besredka and Noguchi.
Bronfenbrenner became a U.S. citizen in 1913. That same year he married Martha Ornstein, a historian of science. The couple moved to Pittsburgh, where Bronfenbrenner became head of the research and diagnostic laboratories of the Western Pennsylvania Hospital. His research at this time focused on the diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis using biological methods rather than on other chemical or surgical remedies. A son, Martin, was born in 1915. Martha Ornstein died in an automobile accident that same year, which may have prompted Bronfenbrenner to return to the east coast of the United States.
In 1917 Bronfenbrenner became an assistant professor of preventive medicine and hygiene at Harvard, a position which allowed him to work toward an advanced degree in public health. In research he concentrated on means of diagnosing bacterial infections (he was particularly interested in botulism) and elucidating other causes of food poisoning. He received a Doctor of Public Health degree from Harvard in 1919. About this same time he married a second time, to Alice Bronfenbrenner, a chemist. In 1923, Bronfenbrenner returned to Rockefeller, this time to assume the position of "associate member," which granted him his own laboratory. He began what became his major career focus, namely, research on bacteriophages. Work with these so-called "bacteria eaters" (a term chosen by the principal discoverer, the Canadian Felix d'Herelle) inspired popular conjecture in terms of potential therapies for infectious diseases-they may have been a source of the fictional discovery celebrated in Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith (1925). Bronfenbrenner directed his investigations toward explaining the physical properties of bacteriophages and how to control and interpret lysis.
In 1928 Bronfenbrenner accepted the chair of the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology at Washington University School of Medicine (as one of two Rockefeller associates to join the Medical School that year-the other being E. V. Cowdry). In St. Louis he continued his research on purification and quantification of bacteriophages. His laboratories were in what is now known as the West Building and he recruited several brilliant junior faculty members. In time the most famous was Alfred Hershey, who in 1969 would receive the Nobel Prize for identifying the DNA of bacteriophages.
Bronfenbrenner may have been drawn to St. Louis in hopes of establishing a full-fledged school of public health, but was clear when the Great Depression assaulted the resources of Washington University and all comparable institutions that this dream could not be realized. It was difficult enough to maintain the functions of the 1914-designed laboratories inherited from the Pathology Department. Bronfenbrenner did however play a major role in the response to a particular public health threat that is now linked by name to his adopted city: St. Louis encephalitis.