Tag Archives: Biology

Jews of the Week: Waksman and Schatz

Selman Waksman

Selman Waksman

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.

Albert Schatz

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

Jew of the Week: Tikvah Alper

Born in South Africa to poor immigrants from Russia, Tikvah Alper (1909-1995) showed a talent for maths and sciences at an early age. At age 20, she traveled to Berlin to work on her doctorate with former Jew of the Week Lise Meitner, where she published an award-winning paper on delta rays. Alper had a son who was born deaf, so she moved to the U.S. to study diligently from the best experts in the field, herself becoming a teacher for the deaf. Returning to South Africa, Alper was a professor at Witwatersrand University, where she became famous for championing black people’s rights, causing her to draw the ire of the government. For opposing apartheid, she lost her position at the National Physics Laboratory, and nearly lost her passport, too. Alper fled to Britain, where she worked for the remainder of her life in a radiobiology lab. It was there that she researched various brain-eating disorders and proposed a new mechanism of disease: an infectious protein. At the time, the idea was laughable, but it has since been proven and confirmed (now called a “prion”), especially after the mad cow disease scare. Alper’s book Cellular Radiobiology became the bible for radiobiologists. All of these things, as well as her iconic feminism, made her a heroic figure for many around the world, and her London home became a meeting place for the best and brightest in the field of radiobiology. Alper enjoyed sailing, and continued to travel the world well into her 80s.

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Words of the Week

A person’s main vitality lies in his intellect. One who is not using his intellect to its full potential is considered asleep. Many people who seem to be alive are in fact sleeping their lives away…
– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Jew of the Week: Rosalind Franklin

The One Who Revealed DNA’s Secret

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) The world’s most famous biophysicist was born into a wealthy Jewish-British family, well-known for their roles in founding the Jewish state and helping Jews flee from the Nazis. Her great-uncle, Herbert Samuel, was the first observant Jew in history to serve in the British government, and carried the title “Viscount”. From an early age, Franklin was noted for her talent in scientific exploration. Combining her knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics, she was able to produce the highest quality images of DNA and RNA, evidence used by Watson and Crick to deduce DNA’s structure, a breakthrough moment for science. Additionally, she discovered DNA’s two forms (A and B), designed an ingenious method to separate them, and unraveled the mysteries of TM virus. Likely due to high doses of radiation, Franklin battled at least three different types of cancers. But this wouldn’t slow her down. She continued working, publishing 13 papers and serving on the team that developed the vaccine for polio. Unfortunately, she succumbed to her illnesses at a very early age, and was unable to claim her Nobel prize (which is not awarded posthumously). She would become an icon of feminism, breaking the barriers of the then male-dominated world of science. Franklin’s work has been described as “the most beautiful x-ray photographs of any substance ever taken”.

Words of the Week

A person is obligated to say: The entire world was created for me.
– Talmud, Kiddushin 82b