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Stamen Grigorov, The Man Who Brought Us Yogurt (While Trying to Cure Tuberculosis!)

What do yogurt and tuberculosis have in common?

Time under the microscope of modern day hero Stamen Grigorov!

A spoon rests against jar of white Bulgarian yogurt with a foil top. A graphic of a line drawn pair of lungs is the background.

Who is this unsung hero, and why do we all owe him one?

Who is Stamen Grigorov?

Stamen Grigorov was Doctor Stamen Gigov Grigorov, a Bulgarian microbiologist and physician who discovered the bacteria used to make yogurt.

Grigorov died in 1945.

Why Stamen Grigorov is Famous

Doctor Stamen Grigorov’s most famous discovery was the bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus, which was later named after his home country.

How Stamen Grigorov Discovered Lactobacillus Bulgaricus

The story goes that his wife packed him some yogurt and other Bulgarian food when he went off to be a research assistant at the Medical University of Geneva (where he had previously graduated from).

Perhaps he was procrastinating like most of us, or maybe he had a lot of downtime, but Doctor Grigorov studied that yogurt like it was his job.

A sepia picture of a vintage microscope  like Stamen Grigorov may have had with a slide of bacteria in the foreground, where the yogurt bacteria has grown in a vine pattern: green on yellow.
Who knew bacteria could be trained like this.

It is said that he conducted thousands of experiments and tests with his microscope, to figure out how exactly milk was transformed into yogurt.

He was driven by his intrigue over the yogurt’s taste and reported health benefits.

Knowing he was a doctor, that doesn’t surprise me. He was probably keen to know if there was medicinal qualities in yogurt that could be isolated.

(Knowing Bularians’ obsession with the “benefits” of rakia, I’m surprised he didn’t study that too!)

I am not too sure how long these experiments took, he was married in 1904 which I read was the year before he left for the research position, but I have also read that he left in 1904.

By most accounts, it sounds like he spent the better part of a year working on this dilemma.

Finally in 1905, at the tender age of 27, Stamen Grigorov found the Lactobacillus bulgaricus, a rod shaped bacteria responsible for the fermentation of milk. (Personally I think the bacteria looks like pills.)

A graphic of many lactobacillus bulgaricus: bacteria that look like two pills joined together, over a turquoise background.
Lactobacillus Bulgaricus

Doctor Stamen Grigorov’s Work on Penicillin

Later in 1905, Stamen Grigorov took a job back home in Tran, Bulgaria, as the hospital’s Chief Physician.

(“Oh good, at just 27” you are probably thinking. Rest assured I haven’t been 27 in a minute, and I’m writing this from the kitchen of my rental, so we can’t all be Stamen Grigorovs.)

In 1906, after conducting many experiments trying to find a microbe that could attack tuberculosis, Grigorov did just that.

He wrote a paper about how he discovered that the fungi penicillin could be a promising vaccine and treatment for tuberculosis:

“I tried some different microbes –saprophytes, cultivating them in liquid with dead tuberculosis bacilli. My aim was to find out which are the microbes that attack the fatty and waxy materials in the membrane of tuberculosis bacillus”

You can read a few more excerpts from his paper here.

(Trigger warning: Animal testing.)

His paper was sent to “the most famous medical journal ‘La presse medical’ in Paris” where it received high praise from his peers.

I would bet any money that’s what Grigorov was looking for in his yogurt, a bacteria that could attack Tuberculosis.

So why wasn’t he credited with this discovery?

By the sounds of it, Bulgaria just didn’t have the resources to put into furthering his discovery.

Perhaps if he had moved back to Geneva or somewhere else where medical science was better supported, he could have been the man who discovered medical penicillin.

A picture of penicillin mold blooms from above. Green fluffy mold on a dark brown background.
Mmm penicillin.

As it was, Stamen Grigorov was very devoted to his medical career and the local hospital in tiny Tran.

The discovery of the Tuberculosis vaccine has been credited to French microbiologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin, who developed it from 1908 to 1921.

(I’m almost certain they read Doctor Grigorov’s paper!)

Before you get upset, it’s more like saving a discovery than stealing it!

They did still spend 13 years developing the vaccine, while Doctor Grigorov dedicated himself to providing immediate medical care.

Stamen Grigorov Life and Death

Stamen Grigorov was born in 1878 in the village of Studen Izvor, near the town of Tran, where he later worked as a doctor. Studen Izvor is in Western Bulgaria very close to the Serbian border.

Stamen Grigorov as a Young Adult

As an adolescent, Stamen Grigorov went to high school in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Even by car in modern times, Sofia is an hour and a half away, so while there is little information online, I would think that he attended a boarding school.

He attended university in Montpellier France, and then a doctorate program at the Medical University of Geneva in Switzerland – the same university where he would discover the yogurt bacteria.

Post-Graduate Studies

While studying in Geneva, Grigorov wrote a paper entitled “Contribution to the pathogenesis of appendicitis” (possibly titled in French). This dissertation was said to impress the Director of the university’s microbiology department, Leon Massol, who invited Grigorov to be a research assistant.

A view of the rooftops of Geneva Switzerland where Stamen Grigorov discovered lactobacillus bulgaricus. In the background is the big lake. In the foreground: a green copper clock tower.
Geneva Switzerland

Stamen Grigorov Adult Life and Military Service

After his research position and the discovery of Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Dr. Grigorov was offered, and declined, several prestigious opportunities and chose instead to return home to small town Bulgaria.

Stamen Grigorov served as a medic during the Balkan Wars (1912 & 1913) and again in WWI. During the first world war he helped battle a cholera epidemic amongst the troops.

According to one source, Dr. Grigorov was given the Order of Bravery, and the Red Cross.

A brown canvas first world war medical kit like Stamen Grigorov would have carried. It is rolled out. It is full of implements like clamps and scissors.

Information about Grigorov’s later years is patchy at best. We know that he worked at the hospital in Tran for many years, so perhaps this quieter time in his life was spent raising a family and serving the local community.

It is suggested that he spent some time in the 1920’s testing his possible tuberculosis vaccine around the country.

From 1935 to 1944, Stamen Grigorov spent time in Italy where they were already doing advanced work on tuberculosis.

Stamen Grigorov Marriage and Family Life

Shortly before accepting the research position in Geneva, Grigorov married his wife Darinka Grigorova. Little is known about her except that she was from the same town in Bulgaria that he was.

Darinka is most famous for giving her husband the yogurt that he tested relentlessly.

Rust coloured Bulgarian clay pottery with their traditional folk patter of white, orange, green and yellow decorating the yogurt mug and little pot. Both containers rest on a loud embroidered tablecloth.

Dr. Grigorov did have at least one child, a son named Alexander Grigorov, because he has been credited with continuing his father’s work.

His granddaughter Julia Grigorova registered the “Stamen Grigorov Foundation” in Sofia in 1996. She also wrote a biography about Grigorov, translated title: “In the beginning was the family memory.”

Stamen Grigorov Death

Stamen Grigorov died of natural causes in 1945, on his 67th birthday. I wanted to find out where he was buried, but no such luck.

I also tried to find an official cause of death, but only ever found “natural causes.” Probably because in 1945 they didn’t look into medical related deaths like they do today.

Perhaps if you visit the tiny town of Studen Izvor, you may find his grave.

Stamen Grigorov’s Legacy

There are a number of ways that Dr. Stamen Grigorov was honored after his death. Here are a few:

Studen Izvor Museum of Yogurt

The Doctor Stamen Grigorov Foundation established by his granddaughter Julia, started a yogurt museum in his hometown of Studen Izvor.

You can get to Studen Izvor by car from Sofia…and that’s about it!

The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday from 9 am to 6 pm. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

At the museum of yogurt, you will find an exhibit dedicated to the late great Stamen Grigorov himself.

You will also learn all about the process of making traditional Bulgarian yogurt, and see a number of historical yogurt-making tools and containers.

Dr. Stamen Grigorov Municipal Hospital

In Tran (Trun), the town neighbouring Dr. Grigorov’s birth village of Studen Izvor, is the hospital that he spent much of his career at.

It was renamed the “Dr. Stamen Grigorov Municipal Hospital” but nowadays functions as a home for the elderly.

Postage Stamp

Stamen Grigorov was honored with a Bulgarian postage stamp.

The commemorative stamp comes in a large green block with sheep on it, and the physician with his microscope are on the tear-out portion.

You can see a picture of it here.

Geneva School

In Geneva Switzerland, theDr. Stamen Grigorov School is a Bulgarian school established in 1984.

In addition to compulsory subjects, students learn Bulgarian Geography, Culture, and Language.

Grigorov Glacier

Grigorov Glacier in Antarctica is a 1.1 mile by 1 mile patch of ice that has been named for the esteemed doctor.

It is located on Brabant Island in the Palmer Archipelago.

A picture of Palmer archipelago where Stamen Grigorov has a glacier named after him. Icebergs float on either side of the frame on a cloudy day, and mountains are barely visible in the distance.
Palmer Archipelago

Fun Fact: Antarctica has more than 300 places named after medical professionals!

Google Doodle

You know how Google changes up their logo once in a while for special occasions, or just for fun?

That’s a Google Doodle.

Dr. Stamen Grigorov got his very own commemorative Google Doodle on October 27, 2020 – his 142nd birthday.

What’s Special About Bulgarian Yogurt?

After all of this information about the discovery of the bacteria used to make yogurt, you may be wondering:

“What is so special about Bulgarian yogurt?”

Bulgarian yogurt is actually a patented product, made from proprietary strains of bacteria that the government holds the right to. There are only three ways to try “official” Bulgarian yogurt: Buy it in Bulgaria, find an imported product, or try a version made with the state-owned starter.

More traditional Bulgarian clay pottery like Stamen Grigorov's wife would have packed. A yellow, brown, and green yogurt pot with a lid and a small wooden yogurt spoon.

In the 1950’s, after Stamen Grigorov’s death, government microbiologists surveyed and tested many different homemade yogurts around the country.

They then isolated the best tasting and “most beneficial” bacterial strains.

This culture was patented and it is still sold to this day.

Of course an argument can be made that any yogurt that you eat in Bulgaria that has been made locally, is “Bulgarian yogurt.”

Yogurt has a rich history in Bulgaria and throughout the Balkans.

Wive’s tales have it that nomadic tribes accidentally discovered the yogurt when it fermented in their animal skin carrying containers.

Anything is possible!

Bulgaria has a particularly prolific ancient history, so it would not surprise me if pottery turned up from a thousand years ago with “yogurt” emblazoned across it in Cyrillic.

What Stamen Grigorov Did For the World

By finding the bacteria responsible for the production of yogurt, Stamen Grigorov taught the world how yogurt making actually works.

His discovery was instrumental for bringing yogurt outside of Europe and into Asia and North America. That’s right, before Dr. Grigorov, there was no yogurt in America!

A glass bowl of creamy Balkan yogurt with a small wooden spoon resting in it.

Hard to believe that if it weren’t for this humble Bulgarian doctor and scientist, we might not be scooping into our extra creamy vanilla bean creations. (Which I’m sure would be a travesty back then!)

It makes sense why my little Bulgarian is such a yogurt monster! It’s genetic. Blame it on Grigorov.