This Day in Jewish History / Birth of a Scientist Who Linked Birth Defects to Genes

Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch found refuge from the Nazis in the U.S. and proved that certain abnormalities originate in mutation.

David Green
David B. Green
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There's no such thing as a 'Jewish gene', but Jewish populations do share certain traits.Credit: Ayala Tal
David Green
David B. Green

October 6, 1907 is the birthday of Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch, the German-born pioneer of the field of differential genetics, who prevailed as a scientist despite the anti-Semitism she experienced early in her life and the sexism that threatened to hold her back even after she had found political haven in the United States.

Salome Gluecksohn was born in Danzig, West Prussia (today, Gdansk, Poland), to Ilya Gluecksohn and the former Nadia Pomeranz. Her father died in the flu epidemic of 1918 and the family’s savings disappeared in the hyperinflation that followed World War I. Late in life she recalled how, even as a child, she encountered anti-Jewish sentiment: “I had to fight on the street against the children who ran after me and sang dirty anti-Semitic songs. I grew up fighting.”

Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch

According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Gluecksohn decided to study zoology and chemistry as an undergraduate because she expected to emigrate to Palestine and these fields seemed more practical than classics, her personal preference. However, when Hitler came to power, it was to New York that she and her husband, Rudolph Schoenheimer, fled. By then, she had earned her doctorate in embryology from the University of Freiburg. She worked in the lab there of Hans Spemann. In 1935, three years after Gluecksohn completed her Ph.D, Spemann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in embryonic development .

In a tribute to Gluecksohn-Waelsch written after her death, in 2007, former colleague Davor Solter described how Gluecksohn, then a graduate student in Freiburg, couldn’t resist trying on a pink cashmere sweater she saw in a store, even though she couldn’t afford it. The proprietor offered to give her the sweater in exchange for allowing him to place a photograph of her modeling the garment in the window for several months. “She told this story with unconcealed glee,” wrote Solter in the journal Developmental Cell. “She was obviously quite proud of her good looks and even more of her daring; having her photograph in a boutique window was not the thing for a proper graduate student to do!”

Soon after she began a research position at the University of Berlin she was forced out when, in 1933, all Jewish faculty members in Germany were fired. Gluecksohn and Schoenheimer soon left for New York. Columbia University hired Schoenheimer as a professor of biochemistry, but it took Gluecksohn three years to find a job. In 1936 she began working in the laboratory of geneticist Leslie C. Dunn, initially without pay.

Schoenheimer committed suicide in 1941. Two years later, Gluecksohn married neurochemist Heinrich Waelsch. They had two children together.

Insight into inherited birth defects

The earliest cells in a mammal embryo are all the same, and only as it grows do they become differentiated. Gluecksohn-Waelsch’s great intuition, which she went on to prove in work with mice, was that developmental mutations in mammals had a genetic basis, even if they only appeared at later stages of the mother’s pregnancy. Her research served as an important basis for the understanding of inherited defects in mammals.

After 17 years at Columbia, realizing she would never be offered tenure, in 1953 Gluecksohn-Waelsch accepted a professorship at Yeshiva University’s new Albert Einstein College of Medicine. (She did, however, receive a spacious apartment from Columbia, where she lived until her death, after explaining her research to a grateful Dwight D. Eisenhower, the university’s president from 1948 to 1953.) She headed Einstein’s genetics department from 1963 to 1976, and continued working there as a professor emerita until the 1990s.

Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch died on November 7, 2007, a month after celebrating her 100th birthday.