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Israel Studies 9.2 (2004) 71-105

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Geneticist Elisabeth Goldschmidt:

A Two-Fold Pioneering Story

Elisabeth Wexler Goldschmidt's life story is very much the classical story of many of the scientists in the early days of the Hebrew University. Born Elisabeth Wexler in Germany, and reared on its traditions of learning, she arrived in Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, only to be influenced by American traditions after World War II. Her personal narrative enables us to learn about the formative processes of the university as a whole. At the same time, Goldschmidt's story is of special interest, since it was she who introduced the studies of genetics as a new discipline, which was finally established into a department a few years after she passed away in 1970. She was also one of the few women to become part of the academic establishment in Jerusalem in the 1950s and 1960s, when very few women had careers in science, not only locally but worldwide.

Following the story of Goldschmidt's life and work entails the usual difficulties characteristic of learning about people in the natural sciences. They usually wrote very little about themselves while they were active in their field, and sat down to write their memoirs only after retirement. Goldschmidt who died a tragic death at age 57, never reached the stage of autobiographical writing, however, nor was she fortunate enough to have her laboratory notes and her many letters preserved and or accessible. The material available to me for this article included her scientific publications, information gleaned in interviews. and a limited number of letters and documents from the Archives of The Hebrew University and those of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. [End Page 71]

Frankfort, London, and Jerusalem: Initial Influences

Elisabeth Wexler was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Frankfort-am-Main in 1912. The Jewish population in the city, where Elisabeth lived with her parents and her brother, numbered 22,000-29,000 in the first quarter of the twentieth century, was the second largest Jewish community in Germany, smaller only than that of Berlin. Wexler attended the Humboldt Jewish School for Girls and matriculated in 1932.1

We do not have records of the school curriculum, but German gymnasia of the day were devoted mostly to the humanities. Studies would have included the classics, Latin, and Greek. Typically, not much time was devoted to science in such a school system, but what sciences were taught usually included physics, mathematics, and geology. The school system in Frankfort, however, was somewhat different. Because it was home to many scientific organizations, it also fostered a high degree of scientific awareness in its students and devoted more time to scientific pursuits.2

After her high-school graduation, Elisabeth Wexler began her studies at the Faculty of Medicine at Frankfort University. Her medical studies lasted only one year. In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, Ernst Krieck, an elementary-school teacher, was appointed Rector of the University of Frankfort—an appointment that was a harbinger of change in German academe.3 At the University of Frankfort, as in other German universities, academic and scientific achievements were no longer the deciding factor in advancing students and teachers. What mattered were a person's family background and affiliation with the Nazi party. Thus ended Elisabeth Wexler's dream of becoming a physician.

Instead of remaining in Germany, Elisabeth chose to move to London, where she had many relatives, and continue her studies there. Several years later, in 1939, her parents fled Germany, eventually joining her in Jerusalem in 1946. Elisabeth's brother, who was hospitalized in Holland due to mental illness, perished there. Elisabeth was accepted to London University, but was not admitted to the second year of medical studies and, reluctantly, began studying zoology. There is no single explanation for this choice, though it is possible that having come from Frankfort influenced her decision, since some of Germany's leading nineteenth-century zoologists had come from there—among them, Richard Goldschmidt, August Weismann, Carl Chun, and Otto Bü...


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