For more than four decades geneticist Batsheva Bonne-Tamir has studied genetic markers and diseases among different population groups in Israel. She was born in Jerusalem on July 27, 1932, to Theda (née Stein, 1901–1995) and Alfred (1899–1959) Bonne. Her parents met during their studies at Munich University and immigrated to Mandatory Palestine
in 1924. Alfred Bonne was a professor of economics and dean of the faculty of social sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Theda, who had studied gardening in Munich, was a homemaker. Batsheva was the third and youngest child; her sister Hava (b. 1925) received her doctorate in psychology and her brother Yochanan (1929–1987) completed a doctorate in water engineering.
Bonne completed her high school education at the Hebrew Gymnasium of Rehaviah, Jerusalem. At the age of eighteen she traveled with her parents to New York, where she studied English and American history at Columbia University. A year later she returned to Israel to enlist in the Fighting Pioneer Youth unit of the Israel Defence Forces at Kibbutz Zorah, along with her friends from the youth movement. Her heart was torn between two passions: kibbutz life and academic education. Finally, she decided to leave the kibbutz and pursue the study of social sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She regularly attended lectures on basic genetics taught by Elisheva Goldschmidt and wrote her bachelor’s thesis on marriage patterns among kibbutz members.
Awarded a full scholarship, Batsheva Bonne was able to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Chicago in physical anthropology over the years 1958 to 1960. She wrote her thesis on the Samaritans, a small ethnic isolate that lives in Israel and numbers in the hundreds. On a visit to Israel in the summer of 1961 Bonne presented her research findings on the Samaritan community at the “The Genetics of Migrant and Isolate Populations” conference, organized by Goldschmidt and Chaim Sheba (1908–1971). This marked the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Sheba’s research team at Tel ha-Shomer.
That summer, Bonne collected blood samples from the Samaritans, which served as the basis for her doctorate in human genetics at the Boston University School of Medicine under the advisorship of William C. Boyd. She submitted her Ph.D. in 1965 and together with colleagues from Tel ha-Shomer founded the human genetics department at the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine.
Working with a team of students, Bonne studied the genetic diversity of small communities (isolates): the Habbanites from Hadramaut, the Bedouin of South Sinai and the Armenian community in Jerusalem. They also studied the genetic diversity of large ethnic communities in Israel: Libyan Jews, Ashkenazi Jews of German descent and Jews from Morocco, Iraq, Yemen and Ethiopia. These studies used genetic markers as a vehicle for uncovering and proving populations’ origins and history and for calculating “genetic distances” between different populations.
While conducting her research on the Bedouin in the Sinai in 1968, Batsheva Bonne met Zvi Tamir (1923–1996), who worked for the Israeli Intelligence and Security forces. Their son, Eldad Tamir (today a musician), was born in 1970. From 1977 to 1982 Bonne chaired the human genetics department at Tel Aviv University. In 1979 she was promoted to associate professor and attained full professorship in 1987, holding several prominent positions in local and international conferences and serving on the boards of many academic journals.
During her sabbatical year at Stanford University in 1983–1984 Bonne became familiar with the newest laboratory techniques—analysis of mitochondrial DNA samples and of the Y chromosome. Using these molecular methods enabled Bonne and her team to map the gene for Wilson’s liver and neurologic disease on chromosome 13 and locate a gene causing a rare recessive deafness (myosin VII) on chromosome 11. The onset of both diseases occurs during the teenage years and twenties, respectively.
In the 1990s Bonne was appointed the Near East representative in the Human Genome Diversity Project, which aims to collect genetic materials of different populations. In 1994 she established and headed (together with Mia Horwitz) the National Laboratory for the Genetics of Israeli Populations, where more than two thousand frozen cell lines are preserved as a pool serving researchers from Israel and abroad. Between 1961 and 2004 Bonne published 197 articles.
Today a professor emerita, Bonne continues to research the molecular genetics of the Samaritan population as well as to participate in and organize academic conferences.