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  • Images >> Efraim Racker (1913–1991)
  • Efraim Racker

The art that accompanies this special issue on the intersections of scientific language and humanistic thought features the paintings, drawings, and computer-generated art of a biochemist who never stopped making art, even if his original plan to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna soon shifted to the study of medicine.

Efraim Racker spent the last twenty-five years of his life at Cornell University, as the Albert Einstein professor of biochemistry. The path that led him to the United States, and ultimately to Cornell, like that of many of his generation, was in large measure taken in response to political events in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Poland to Jewish parents in 1913, he soon moved with his family to Vienna, where he played soccer and chess and came to love music and painting. After high school, he passed the admission examination to study painting at the Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien. After a short time, he left the Akademie to study medicine at the University of Vienna. His final medical school exams in 1938 were disrupted by Hitler’s Anschluß, which led to Jews being banned from the university.

He managed to take his exams later that year, received his medical degree, and fled to Great Britain where he took a position at the Cardiff City Mental Hospital. It was there that he conducted his first biochemical research working to identify defects that might indicate the biochemical causes of mental diseases. When Great Britain entered the war, Racker, a refugee from occupied Europe, was interned on the Isle of Man, where he practiced medicine for the first time since receiving his medical degree. He emigrated to the United States in 1941 and in time—by way of the University of Minnesota and the Harlem Hospital in New York—he received an appointment in microbiology at New York University College of Medicine, which is where his career as a biochemist began in earnest. There were other appointments at other institutions until in the fall of 1966 he moved with his wife Dr. Franziska Racker and daughter Ann to Ithaca, New York. His appointment at Cornell allowed the university to recruit other top researchers in biochemistry and molecular biology. His research in protein chemistry and molecular biology included the study of a range of proteins that catalyze biochemical reactions. He was considered a leading researcher on energy metabolism in cancer cells. He was named a recipient of the National Medal of Science in 1976, awarded by Jimmy Carter. [End Page 1]

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(Variations on EFONE), 1979
Photo: Jon Reis Photography(Page 2)

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(Variations on EFONE), 1979
Photo: Jon Reis Photography(Page 3)

When he wasn’t working tirelessly in his lab, he was often found in his home art studio overlooking Cayuga Lake. He worked in a range of media: oil, charcoal, ink, acrylics, watercolors, Magic Markers, and an early Macintosh computer with a dot matrix printer. Over the years, he gave paintings to colleagues and friends and also sold his paintings to donate to the Edsall Fund, which he established to support students with financial need. He assembled his smaller works in handmade albums. At the time of his death in 1991, a few days after suffering a stroke, he was planning a leave of absence from his lab at Cornell to do an artist’s residency at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California (a residency founded by a fellow scientist, the chemist Carl Djerassi).

Digital images of his work in eighty albums—made between 1932–1991—can be viewed online: The names of the individual works in this issue are followed by the name of the album in which they appear. The editors of diacritics express their gratitude to Efraim Racker’s daughter, Dr. Ann Costello, for enthusiastically supporting the publication of his images, and to Jon Reis, who photographed the artwork and provided the digital images.

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