Scientists with roots in the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth played a substantial role in the development of American science. Many of these figures would go on to win Nobel Prizes for their considerable contributions to the field. This is particularly clear with regards to the prize categories of Physiology or Medicine and Chemistry.
Selman Abraham Waksman (1888 – 1973) was a Jewish-American inventor, biochemist, and microbiologist. His research into the decomposition of organisms that live in soil led to the discovery of several antibiotics. This includes streptomycin, which was the first effective treatment for tuberculosis. In 1952, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Waksman was born to Jewish parents in a village in Podolia, Ukraine. He graduated from a local cheder (Religious Jewish primary school) and soon started his science education. Waksman migrated to the United States in 1910. Later, he joined the faculty of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he made his most important discoveries.
George Wald (1906 – 1997) was an American scientist who studied pigments in the retina. In 1967, he was part of a team that won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Wald was born in NYC to a Jewish family. His father came from a small village located very close to Przemyśl, one of the historical, cultural, and administrative centers of Eastern Galicia. Here, Jews lived together with Poles, as well as a substantial Ukrainian community. Indeed, until it was eclipsed by Lviv in the 1830s, Przemyśl was the most significant town in the Ukrainian national awakening. At the beginning of the 1930s, Wald worked briefly at Heidelberg University, Germany. However, he left when Adolf Hitler came to power and life in the country became increasingly dangerous for Jews. Wald then moved to Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher learning in the US. This institution has more alumni, faculty, and researchers who have won Nobel Prizes than any other university in the world. There, he eventually became a professor. As a pacifist, he was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. In 1985, with a small number of other Nobel laureates, Wald visited Moscow to advise Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, on environmental questions. He questioned Gorbachev about the fate of various Soviet scientists repressed by the regime. This included fellow Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, a Russian nuclear physicist whose ancestors were from the most Eastern parts of the former Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth.
Andrzej Viktor ‘Andrew’ Schally is an American endocrinologist of Polish ancestry, who was a co-recipient of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 1962, Andrew Schally became a US citizen and took on the post of professor of medicine at Tulane University, Louisiana. He conducted pioneering research into human hormones and discovered three that are produced in the brain. His work played a key role in advancing our understanding of the function and interaction of the brain with the rest of the human body. Schally was born in 1926 in Vilnius. He attended a renowned junior high school where Czesław Miłosz, one of the greatest Polish poets and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, was also a student. The Schally family were owners of a manor house outside of Lviv. Kazimierz, Andrew’s father, studied at the Lviv Polytechnic Institute. He fought with distinction in the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth against the Bolsheviks (1919-1920). He decided to pursue a military career and eventually became a general. In the interwar period, Kazimierz served as chief of the cabinet of the president of Poland. Andrzej Schally also has Jewish roots. In his short autobiography prepared for the Nobel Committee, Schally wrote that “My life and outlook were influenced by the harsh childhood which I spent in the Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, but I was fortunate to survive the Holocaust while living among the Jewish-Polish Community in Romania. I used to speak Polish, Rumanian, Yiddish, Italian and some German and Russian, but I have almost completely forgotten them”.
Herbert Charles Brown (1912 – 2004) was an American chemist and recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work with organoboranes. His alma mater was the University of Chicago, which can claim the fourth highest number of Nobel laureates of any university in the world. Brown was born in London to a Jewish family that originated in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. They moved to London in 1908 and then to the US in 1914. Zhytomyr was one of the largest towns in the Eastern lands of the Commonwealth. By the end of the 19th century, its huge Jewish community made up around 35 per cent of the settlement’s population. Today, Zhytomyr is the unofficial capital of the Polish minority living in Ukraine. In the middle of the 19th century under Russian rule, Zhytomyr held the status of an official Jewish cultural center alongside Vilnius. The Russian authorities only allowed Hebrew books to be printed in these two cities. Both towns were also chosen as the seats of the two rabbinical schools that were established by the government. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish community of Zhytomyr experienced pogroms that encouraged Herbert’s family to migrate to Western Europe.
Roald Hoffmann, born Roald Safran in 1937, is an American theoretical chemist who won the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He is a professor emeritus at Cornell University, which is located in Ithaca, New York. He has also published various plays and poems. Hoffmann was born in Zolochiv, Eastern Galicia, to a Polish-Jewish family, and was named in honor of the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. His father graduated from the Lviv Polytechnic Institute. After Nazi Germany occupied Zolochiv in 1941, the Hoffmann family were interned in a labor camp. As the prisoners were increasingly being deported to extermination camps, the family managed to bribe the Ukrainian guards and escape. Their Ukrainian neighbors, Mykola and Maria Dyuk, agreed to hide the Hoffmann family in the attic and storeroom of a local schoolhouse. They remained in this place for eighteen months. Roald recalled that he often wore the Hutsul (Ukrainian Highlanders) folk costume during this time. His father remained in the labor camp, where he was eventually tortured and killed by the Germans for his involvement in a conspiracy to arm the prisoners. After the war, the Yad Vashem Institute awarded Mykola and Maria Dyuk with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In 2006, after more than 60 years, Roald Hoffmann visited Zolochiv with his son. They found out that the attic where he had hidden was intact. Ironically enough, the storeroom had been incorporated into a chemistry classroom. On Hoffmann’s initiative, a monument to the victims of the Holocaust was erected in Zolochiv. In 2013, Roald was part of a group of intellectuals who signed an appeal in support of Euromaidan. In 2017, a postage stamp commemorating Hoffmann’s birthday was issued in Ukraine.
Gertrude ‘Trudy’ Belle Elion (1918 –1999) was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, who was part of the team that won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The Noble Committee wrote that “With the drugs that she created, Gertrude Elion fulfilled her life’s mission: to alleviate human suffering. Beyond the individual drugs she discovered, she pioneered a new, more scientific approach to drug development that forever altered – and accelerated – medical research”. ‘Trudy’ was born in New York City. Her father emigrated to the US from Lithuania when he was 12 years old and went on to become a dentist. Her mother arrived in the United States from Eastern Poland. Gertrude was particularly close to her grandfather. When she was a teenager, she was shocked by her grandfather’s painful death from stomach cancer. The experience defined her career path. As she admitted later, “I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of stomach cancer. [..] I decided that nobody should suffer that much”. “That was the turning point”, she recalled. “It was as though the signal was there: ‘This is the disease you’re going to have to work against’. I never really stopped to think about anything else”. Elion enjoyed her work so much that she never got around to completing her PhD. Her career is also an excellent example of a women’s fight for equality. She recalled that “In my day I was told women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t”. It is no accident that Trudy’s idol became Maria Curie-Skłodowska, a Polish physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two scientific fields. The Skłodowski family was strongly related with the Eastern parts of the Lublin region, which were inhabited mostly by Roman Catholics. However, the region was also home to many Greek Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews.
Eric Richard Kandel is an American doctor who specialized in psychiatry. He is also a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Columbia University, whose alumni, faculty, and staff include almost one hundred Nobel laureates. He was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000. Kandel was particularly interested in the biological basis of the mind. He founded the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University. He was born in Vienna in 1929 into a Jewish family. Eric’s mother came to Vienna after the First World War from the Pokuttya region of Eastern Galicia, while his father migrated to the city from Olesko, also in Eastern Galicia. Before the First World War, Eastern Galicia was part of Austria-Hungary. Kandel’s parents, like many educated Jews in the region, were thoroughly integrated into German-speaking culture. This integration was aided by the fact that Yiddish, a German–derived language traditionally spoken by Ashkenazi Jews, retains many similarities with standard German. Consequently, many Jews decided to migrate to Vienna. The city also attracted many Poles and Ukrainians from Eastern Galicia. The city subsequently played a prominent role in the development of the modern cultures of these three peoples. Kandel left Austria and migrated to the US after the country was annexed by Germany in March 1938. Attacks against Jews only increased following this event. When Kandel won the Nobel Prize, it was presented by the Viennese media as an ‘Austrian Nobel’. He described this opinion as “typically Viennese: very opportunistic, very disingenuous, somewhat hypocritical”. Kandel also announced that it was “certainly not an Austrian Nobel, it was a Jewish-American Nobel”. Nevertheless, Kandel decided to accept honorary citizenship of Vienna and now participates in the academic and cultural life of his native city. Moreover, in 2012 Kandel published the book The Age of Insight. The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, which placed Austro-Hungarian Vienna at the heart of cultural modernism.
Frederick Reines (1918 –1998) was a Jewish-American physicist. He was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics. He graduated from New York University and joined the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory, where he began working as part of Richard Feynman’s group. He eventually became a group leader and participated in many nuclear tests. Reines was born in New Jersey. His parents originated from Białystok, the capital of Podlasie, which is located on the former border between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the modern period, the city experienced a skyrocketing American-style growth in population, increasing to more than 25 times its original size in around 100 years. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews constituted more than 60 per cent of the population. The city also included many Poles, Belarusians, Germans, Tatars, and Roma people. The Reines family migrated from Białystok after a pogrom that was encouraged by the Tsarist authorities during the First Russian Revolution (1905-1907). During the pogrom, more than 80 people lost their lives. The Noble Prize winner was the great-nephew of the Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, the founder of a religious Zionist movement. He was also a regular correspondent of Theodor Herzl, who is officially referred to as “the spiritual father of the Jewish State” in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. Rabbi was born in Pinsk, Polesia (present-day Belarus). He founded a modern yeshiva in Lidia, Belarus that attracted many students from across the former Commonwealth.