The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2004
Falling in love with biology
From early days I remember my strong inclination towards biology, though it has taken different directions at different times. I remember collecting flowers on Mount Carmel and drying them in the heavy Babylonian Talmud of my brother. I will never forget his rage at discovering my love of nature hidden among the pages of the old Jewish tracts. Then came the turtles and the lizards, and extracting chlorophyll from leaves with alcohol, and the first microscope my brother bought me from his trip to England when I was 11 years old. With this microscope I discovered cells (in the thin onion epithelium) and did my first experiment in osmosis, when I followed the alteration in the volume of the cells after immersing the epithelium in salt solutions of different strengths. With friends we tried to launch a self propelled rocket. The flowers collection kept growing, now in special dedicated albums, and with it, a small collection of skeletons of different animals – fish, frog, snake, turtle, and even some human bones I received from an older friend who was a medical student. After several years of amateurish flirting with biology, I decided to formalize my knowledge and love of biology, and to major in biology in high school. While my years in elementary (1953-1959) and junior high school (1959-1963) were mostly uneventful and passed without any thoughts on my future, the last two years in “Hugim” (circles) high school in Haifa (1963-1965) were not. I had wonderful and inspiring teachers in biology (Naomi Nof), chemistry (Na’ama Greenspon), and physics and mathematics (Harry Amitay) who revealed to me a little of these different and exciting disciplines. Yet, I felt that twice as much was still concealed. Biology at that time was largely a descriptive area. While we studied the mechanism of conversion of glucose to H2O and CO2 and the production of energy in yeast and mammals (and the opposite process occurring during photosynthesis in plants), and became acquainted with simple graphic descriptions of mitotic and meiotic cell divisions, most of our studies were devoted to detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna in our region, to comparative zoology (I remember well the efforts invested in memorizing the twelve differences between the frog and the toad, or between the circulatory systems and skeletal structure of the cat and dog), and to basic descriptive human anatomy and physiology (e.g. how the human skeleton structure enables posture on two limbs). Pathogenetic mechanisms of diseases had not been taught, and the structure of DNA and the genetic code had entered our textbooks only towards the end of our high school studies, in 1964/5. On the other hand, chemistry and physics appeared to me, maybe naively, strong mechanistic disciplines built on solid mathematical foundations. As a result, I had a deep feeling that the future somehow resided in biology, in deciphering basic mechanisms, as so little was then known. Yet, the complexity of biological and pathological processes looked to me enormous, almost beyond our ability to grasp, and I was intimidated: while I was clearly attracted to the secrets of biology, I was afraid to get lost. Importantly, I had nobody around, close enough, to consult, to clarify my thoughts. While deliberating between the largely unknown in biology and what I naively thought were the already well founded physics and chemistry, medicine emerged as a compromise: it appeared to me as representing a balanced mixture of physics, chemistry, basic biology and physiology, along with interesting pathology and social sciences.
Adding to this complexity was that during these years I lost both of my parents: my mother died in 1958 and my father in 1964. After the death of my mother, I was left with my father who took wonderful care of me. When my father died several years later, my late aunt Miriam (Wishniak; my mother’s sister), with the help of my brother and sister-in-law, Atara, took me to her home in Haifa, enabling me to seamlessly complete my high school studies in the same class and along with my friends – without interruption. The other option was to move to Tel Aviv, to my brother’s home, but this would have been much more complicated. So I spent the weekdays with my aunt in Haifa, studying, and the weekends and holidays with my brother and sister-in-law, in Tel Aviv. Their help was a true miracle, as thinking of it retrospectively, being left alone without parents at the age of sixteen, the distance to youth delinquency was shorter than the one to the high school class. Yet, with the help of these wonderful family members, I managed to continue.