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Jewish American Heritage Month: Science & Medicine

This week we continue our month-long celebration of Jewish American Heritage month with a look at just a small –  in fact, miniscule – sampling of Jewish Americans who left an indelible mark in the fields of medicine and science.


JULE CHARNEY (Jan. 1, 1917 – June 16, 1981) was an American meteorologist who contributed to the development of numerical weather prediction and to increased understanding of the general circulation of the atmosphere by devising a series of increasingly sophisticated mathematical models of the atmosphere.
Born in San Francisco on New Year’s Day 1917, Charney was the son of Stella and Ely Charney who had immigrated early in the century from White Russia. Shortly after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, Charney joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and participated in the first efforts to apply digital computers to the problem of weather prediction. He was a leader among those who worked to formulate the equations governing atmospheric motions, excluding from his formulations possible solutions (e.g., sound waves) that do not affect large-scale weather patterns while retaining the complex phenomenon of cyclone formation. This work provided the theoretical basis for the routine use of computers in forecasting.

CARL SAGAN (Nov. 9, 1934 – Dec. 20, 1996) was an American astronomer and astrochemist and a highly successful popularizer of several natural sciences. He pioneered exobiology and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Sagan is famous for writing popular science books and co-writing and presenting the award-winning 1980 television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage”, which has been seen in over 60 countries and is the most widely watched Public Broadcasting Service program in history. Sagan published more than 600 scientific papers and popular articles and was author, co-author, or editor of more than 20 books. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Sam Sagan and Rachel Molly Gruber, Sagan was a leader in the U.S. space program since its inception and worked as an adviser to NASA from the 1950s onward. His many awards include the Oersted Medal, the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, and the United States National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal.

Headlines celebrating the success of Salk's polio vaccine.

JONAS SALK (Oct. 28, 1914 – June 23, 1995) was an American medical researcher and virologist who was hailed as a “miracle worker” for his discovery and development of the first safe and effective polio vaccine in 1955 – a time when the epidemic was considered the most frightening public health problem of the post-war United States. In 1947, Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
In 1948, he undertook a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to determine the number of different types of polio virus. Salk saw an opportunity to extend this project towards developing a vaccine against polio and devoted himself to this work for the next seven years. In 1963, Salk founded the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies, an innovative center for medical and scientific research. He spent his last years searching for a vaccine against AIDS. Born in New York City to parents from Jewish Russian immigrant families, he was the first member of his family to go to college.

ALBERT EINSTEIN (March 14,1879 – April 18, 1955) was best known for developing the theory of general relativity, effecting a revolution in physics. For this achievement, he is often regarded as the father of modern physics. While best known for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2 (dubbed “the world’s most famous equation”), he received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his explanation of the phenomenon known as the photoelectric effect which was pivotal in establishing quantum theory within physics. An outspoken pacifist who was publicly identified with the Zionist movement, Einstein emigrated from Germany to the United States when the Nazis took power before World War II. He lived and worked in Princeton, N.J. for the remainder of his life.
On the eve of World War II, he helped alert President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany might be developing an atomic weapon, and recommended that the U.S. begin similar research; this eventually led to what would become the Manhattan Project. Einstein published more than 300 scientific papers along with over 150 non-scientific works. His great intelligence and originality have made the word “Einstein” synonymous with genius.

STANLEY COHEN (born Nov. 17, 1922) is an American biochemist and 1986 Nobel Prize Laureate in Physiology and Medicine. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Cohen was the son of Russian Jewish emigrants who came to America in the early 1900’s. Working with Rita Levi-Montalcini (co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1986) in the 1950s, Cohen isolated nerve growth factor and then went on to discover  epidermal growth factor. He continued his research on cellular growth factors after moving to Vanderbilt University in 1959. His research on cellular growth factors has proven fundamental to understanding the development of  cancer and designing anti-cancer drugs.

HOWARD TEMIN (Dec. 10, 1934 – Feb. 9, 1994) ) was born in Philadelphia, Penn. He won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975, along with David Baltimore and Renato Dulbecco, for describing how tumor viruses act on the genetical material of the cell through reverse transcriptase. This upset the widely held belief at the time of the “Central Dogma” of molecular biology posited by Nobel laureate Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA. Temin showed that certain tumor viruses carried the enzymatic ability to reverse the flow of information from RNA back to DNA using reverse transcriptase. The discovery of reverse transcriptase is one of the most important of the modern era of medicine, as reverse transcriptase is the central enzyme in several widespread human diseases, such as HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and Hepatitis B.

JOSHUA LEDERBERG (May 23, 1925 – Feb. 2, 2008) was an American molecular biologist known for his work in microbial genetics,  artificial intelligence, and the United States space program. He was just 33 years old when he won the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering that bacteria can mate and exchange genes. Lederberg also did extensive research in artificial intelligence. This included work in the NASA experimental programs seeking life on Mars and the  chemistry expert system Dendral. Lederberg was born in Montclair, N.J., to Esther Goldenbaum Schulman Lederberg and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Lederberg, and moved to Washington Heights in Manhattan as an infant.

JACK STEINBERGER (born May 25, 1921) is a German-American physicist currently residing near Geneva, Switzerland. He co-discovered the muon neutrino, along with Leon Lederman and Melvin Schwartz, for which they were given the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics. Steinberger was born in the city of  Bad Kissingen in Bavaria, Germany, in 1921. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany, prompted his parents to send him out of the country. Steinberger emigrated to the United States at the age of 13, making the trans-Atlantic trip with his brother Herbert. Barnett Farroll cared for him as a foster child; the connection was made by Jewish charities in the United States.

EDWARD TELLER (Jan. 15, 1908 – Sept. 9, 2003) was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist, known colloquially as “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” Teller made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy and surface physics. Born in Budapest, he emigrated to the United States in the 1930s, and was an early member of the Manhattan Project charged with developing the first atomic bomb. In his later years he became especially known for his advocacy of controversial technological solutions to both military and civilian problems, including a plan to excavate an artificial harbor in Alaska using thermonuclear explosives.

H. JOSEPH GERBER (1924–1996) was the founder of the Gerber Scientific Instrument Company in Manchester, Conn. Born in Austria in 1924 to a Jewish family, Gerber was 15 when he was imprisoned in a Nazi labor camp. He managed to escape, and with his mother came to the United States in 1940. He raised his family in West Hartford. In his junior year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Gerber’s life took a major turn with his invention of the Gerber Variable Scale. With the Variable Scale as his first manufactured product and a $3,000 investment, The Gerber Scientific Instrument Company was born. In the early days of the company, Gerber invented a variety of manual graphical numerical data reduction systems as well as devised, patented, and co-patented the first digital drafting machine, computer-aided photoplotting system for printed circuit boards, and various robotic cutting and computer-controlled sewing systems. Gerber is credited with 677 U.S. and foreign patents for his inventions. Several of his inventions are on display at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a recipient of the National Medal of Technology in 1994 among other awards.

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