A 1998 Israel Prize laureate for agricultural research, Professor Yehudith Birk of the Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot is an internationally renowned biochemist. Her research interests include biochemical and nutritional investigations of legume seed proteins and legume seed proteinase inhibitors. Her research has had a revolutionary impact on the perception of foods such as soya and humus as important vegetarian sources of protein, which contain inhibitors of the growth of cancers.
Yehudith Birk was born on September 30, 1926, in Grajewo, Poland, the only child of Frida Gitl (1895–1974, née Borowitz) and Baruch Yizhak Gershtanski (1890–1950). Theirs was an ardent Zionist family. Yehudith’s mother was an accountant yet also founded the town’s Tarbut kindergarten and Hebrew day school, while her father was a merchant. In 1935 the family immigrated to Tel Aviv.
After completing her education at Ge’ula commerce high school and spending one year at Kibbutz Alonim, Yehudith started her master’s degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1945, majoring in biochemistry and microbiology. When the Israeli War of Independence broke out, Yehudith Gershtanski married Meir Birk (a physicist, 1924–2000)—the son of a couple who were the landlords of her parents’ rented apartment and her boyfriend of several years. They had two sons: Yitzhak, born in 1953 and Ohad-Shmuel, born in 1957.
During the war years of 1948 and 1949 Birk set aside her academic studies to join the Israel Defense Forces. Serving at the rank of second lieutenant, she worked in the Scientific Corps unit (Hemed), which developed parachute flares, testing them during Israel Air Force night-flights off the Tel Aviv coast.
In December 1950 Birk completed her M.Sc. in biochemistry and microbiology. Encouraged by her husband, she continued for her doctorate in biochemistry at the Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot under the tutelage of Professor Aharon Bondi. She earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1954 and was a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University in 1955 and 1956. Returning from New Jersey in 1956, she joined the Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture. Promoted to senior lecturer in 1962 and to associate professor in 1966, Birk attained full professorship in 1970. Over the course of decades, she advised some one hundred master’s and doctoral students.
One of Birk’s greatest achievements is the isolating and investigating of a protease inhibitor predominant in legume seeds, known today as the Bowman-Birk inhibitor (BBI—named jointly after her and Professor Donald Bowman, who first noted this inhibitor). BBI is a protease inhibitors archetype, utilized as a built-in agent for pest control as well as a cancer preventive agent. Another of Birk’s scientific milestones is the discovery and characterization of the ß-lipotropin (lipolytic hormone) in the hypophysis. This hormone functions as a liquefier of fats and serves to soothe pain.
Birk’s research on the chemistry, structure and biological activities of bio-active proteins, peptides and accompanying compounds has been published in more than one hundred and fifty scientific articles and in chapters of several volumes. Her book, Plant Protease Inhibitors: Significance in Nutrition, Plant Protection, Cancer Prevention and Genetic Engineering, was published in 2003.
Yehudith Birk founded the Food Science and Nutrition school at the Hebrew University Institute of Biochemistry and served as its founding director from 1972 to 1974. Birk held the position of dean of the Faulty of Agriculture from 1977 to 1980. Over the years she has held visiting professor positions at several American universities (primarily in California), as well as at Lincoln University in New Zealand (1995).
In 1978 Birk was awarded the prestigious Rothschild Prize as well as the Mo’ezet Irgunei Nashim be-Yisrael medal in recognition of her remarkable achievements in research and teaching. From 1990 to 1995 Birk served as Pro-Rector of the Hebrew University. A member of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities since 1993, Birk was elected to be an active member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in 2004. Today a professor emerita, Birk continues to hold numerous positions on a national level in the realms of the academy and research. Moreover, she also plays a significant role in shaping Israel’s infrastructure in higher education.