Zvi Hermann Hirsch Schapira (1840-1898) was born to a religious Russian-Jewish family in a small Lithuanian village. He studied to become a rabbi and at age 24 was appointed to his first post. However, he soon decided to pursue his passion for the sciences and ended up studying at a Berlin academy. Three years later, he settled in Odessa and worked for several years as a merchant. In 1878, Schapira moved to Heidelburg and spent another four years studying math and physics, during which time he earned his doctorate. He became a math professor at the University of Heidelburg, and published several important papers. Throughout this time, he continued studying Jewish literature, and contributed to three Hebrew periodicals. By 1884, Shapira was a vocal Zionist, and suggested the establishment of a Jewish National Fund which would buy land in Israel and help settle Jews there. He formally proposed the idea to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, where he also suggested the establishment of a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Tragically, Schapira died the following year from pneumonia. The Jewish National Fund would finally be launched three years later, and it would take another two decades before the Hebrew University would open its doors. The JNF would go on to become one of the most important organizations in Israel’s history, and instrumental in the nascent state’s success. It purchased over 50% of Israel’s landmass, developed over 250,000 acres of its land, planted some 260 million trees, built nearly 200 dams and reservoirs, and established over 1000 parks. The JNF also played a key role in the founding of Tel Aviv in 1909, and in running Israel’s first postal service. It still owns about 13% of Israel’s land, and in the past decade alone, helped Israel expand its water capacity by 7%. The JNF is perhaps most famous for its Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive, which over a million Jews participate in every year.
When God created the first man, He showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” – Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13
Selman Abraham Waksman (1888-1973) was born near Kiev to Jewish-Russian parents. At 22, he immigrated to the U.S. and began his studies at Rutgers University, where he got a Masters in Science before getting his Ph.D. in biology at UC Berkeley. He then headed back to Rutgers to take over the soil microbiology lab, focusing on the study of soil organisms and decomposition. Building on the work of previous scientists, Waksman soon found that bacterial substances could be used to fight bacterial infections. He shifted his lab’s focus towards finding “antibiotics” – a term which he coined. Over the next couple of decades, his lab discovered a dozen antibiotic compounds.
Most important of these was streptomycin, discovered by Waksman’s student Albert Israel Schatz (1920-2005). Schatz also came from Jewish-Russian lineage and originally wanted to be a farmer. He studied soil microbiology, and after serving in a military hospital during World War II, decided to research treatments for tuberculosis. Working in Waksman’s lab, Schatz discovered and named “streptomycin”, which would become one of the most important antibiotics in history, and is still found on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. Schatz made no profit from his discovery, giving up his rights to the drug so that it could be distributed as widely and cheaply to as many people as possible. Unfortunately, he was never given the credit he deserved, with the Nobel prize going only to Waksman in 1952. Both biologists continued their contributions to science, and were decorated with many awards. Waksman also developed microbe-resistant paint for ships, enzyme-enhanced detergents, and a compound to prevent fungal infections of vineyards. He wrote over 400 papers and published 28 books. Meanwhile, Schatz campaigned against the fluoridation of water, proposed new theories for tooth decay and the extinction of dinosaurs, and published over 700 papers and 3 textbooks. Both were ultimately credited for streptomycin, which The New York Times ranked among the Top 10 discoveries of the 20th century.
Words of the Week
“Let there be light” means that all the world – even darkness – should become a source of light and wisdom. It is our job to reveal the hidden light – especially the light that you yourself hold.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,the Lubavitcher Rebbe