Tag Archives: Medicine

Jew of the Week: Isaac Judaeus

The Caliph’s Doctor and the Father of Kabbalah

A 13th-century illustration of Isaac Israeli from a Latin translation of his “Book of Fevers”

Itzhak ben Shlomo (c. 832-932) was born to a religious Jewish family in Egypt. He became renowned as the greatest physician in the country, and in 904 was hired by Prince Ziyadat Allah III. Several years later, he became court physician to Caliph Al-Mahdi Billah of the Fatimid Dynasty, based in Kairouan, Tunisia. Recognizing his immense wisdom, the Caliph made Itzhak (known in Arabic as “Abu Yaqub Ishaq ibn Suleiman al-Israili”, and in Europe as “Isaac Judaeus”) his leading advisor and tutor. Itzhak wrote numerous medical, astronomical, and mathematical treatises which transformed the scientific knowledge of the day. For instance, he is the first person in history to mention performing a tracheostomy. His works were widely distributed for centuries afterwards, and made up much of the medical curriculum of the Middle Ages. Itzhak was also a great philosopher, kabbalist, and mystic. He fused together Greek Neoplatonism with traditional Jewish mysticism, paving the way for the forthcoming explosion of Kabbalistic texts and Jewish mystical circles. His main disciple, Dunash ibn Tamim, wrote a profound commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts. In addition to inspiring many rabbis, he was studied and quoted by great non-Jewish scholars like Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. Among his many other writings is a deeply philosophical commentary on Genesis. In his day, Isaac Judaeus was the world’s leading sage, doctor, and scientist, and Arabic texts of the time refer to him as “master of the seven sciences” and “more valuable than gems”.

Why Did Muslims Rule the Holy Land for 1300 Years?

Words of the Week

We do not have to accept theories as certainties, no matter how widely accepted, for they are like blossoms that fade. Very soon science will be developed further and all of today’s new theories will be derided and scorned and the well-respected wisdom of our day will seem small-minded.
– Rav KookFirst Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel

Jews of the Week: The Minkowskis

Three Renowned Scientists

Hermann Minkowski

Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909) was born in what is now Lithuania, then part of Russia, and previously a part of Poland, to a wealthy Jewish family. His father was a merchant who paid for the construction of the famous Kovno Synagogue. In 1872, the Minkowskis fled the persecutions of the Russian Empire and settled in Germany. Hermann Minkowski went on to study mathematics and physics. In 1883 he won the Mathematics Prize of the French Academy of Sciences. He got his PhD two years later and taught at the Universities of Bonn, Konigsberg, Gottingen, and Zurich (where he was Albert Einstein’s teacher). Minkowski solved a number of big math problems, and actually improved upon Einstein’s theory of relativity, coming up with what is now called “Minkowski space-time”. He gave the mathematical proof for unifying space and time into a singular space-time continuum. Sadly, Minkowski met an untimely death at a young age from sudden appendicitis.

Oskar Minkowksi

His older brother was Oskar Minkowski (1858-1931), who studied biology and medicine. He went on to become a professor at the University of Breslau. (Since Jews were barred from holding such positions at the time, Minkowski had to nominally convert to Christianity.) In 1889, Minkowski did a number of operations on dogs and showed the link between the pancreas and diabetes. Together with Josef von Mering, Minkowski discovered how the pancreas controlled blood sugar levels, which later led to the discovery of insulin. Today, the Minkowski Prize is awarded each year for breakthroughs in diabetes research. His son was Rudolph Minkowski (1895-1976), who studied astronomy. He did important work dealing with supernovae, and later became the head of the famed Palomar Observatory, where he discovered a number of asteroids and nebulae. He also made important contributions in astrophysics, and won the Bruce Medal in 1961 for outstanding lifetime achievement in the field. The Minkowski Crater on the moon is named after him.

Can Jewish Homes Have Christmas Trees?

Words of the Week

In God there is no time or beginning to start, for He always existed and is
everlasting and in Him there is no beginning or end at all.
Rabbi Chaim VitalEtz Chaim

Jew of the Week: Gertrude Elion

The Woman Who Saved Millions of Lives

Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999) was born in New York to Lithuanian- and Polish-Jewish immigrants. She excelled at school, and when her grandfather passed away from cancer, was determined to find the cure. She went on to volunteer as an assistant in a chemistry lab, and was eventually hired for just $20 a week. She used that money to pay for school, earning her Master’s in chemistry in 1941. Unfortunately, Elion was rejected for all fellowships and post-graduate positions because of her gender. Instead, she went to work for a supermarket, testing food quality. From there, she got a job as an assistant in a New York pharmacology lab (now owned by GlaxoSmithKline). Working under the supervision of George Hitchings, she developed two new anti-cancer drugs by 1950. Elion continued to work at the lab, and eventually became the head of its Experimental Therapy department. Despite never formally earning a Ph.D, she was a professor of pharmacology at Duke University between 1971 and 1999. Among the drugs that Elion developed are Purinethol (the first leukemia medication), Daraprim (to treat malaria), and Acyclovir (the first and most common antiviral medication, used to treat herpes, chicken pox, and shingles). Azathioprine, a drug to prevent organ transplant rejection which Elion discovered in 1963, has since been used to ensure successful kidney transplants for over 500,000 people. She also developed drugs to treat meningitis, gout, urinary, and respiratory infections. While Elion officially retired from drug-making in 1983, she was inspired to continue working due to the then-recent outbreak of HIV/AIDS. She continued working full time until the successful release of AZT, the first drug to treat AIDS. For all of this tremendous work, which saved the lives of countless thousands, Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988. She received a National Medal of Science in 1991, and in that same year became the first woman ever inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. (Elion holds 45 patents.) She finally received an honourary Ph.D from New York University in 1989, and another doctorate from Harvard when she was 80 years old. She is recognized as one of the greatest pharmacologists and biochemists of all time.

Red Sea or Reed Sea: Where is Mount Sinai?

Words of the Week

If you wait until you find the meaning of life, will there be enough life left to live meaningfully?

– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersonthe Lubavitcher Rebbe