Botanist Naomi Feinbrun-Dothan was one of the first and rare women who became part of the academic staff at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the days when very few women had scientific careers, not only locally but also worldwide. For more than six decades she studied the flora of Israel and published dozens of articles and several analytical flora books. At the age of ninety-one she received the 1991 Israel Prize for her unique contribution to Land of Israel studies.
Naomi Feinbrun was born to a Zionist family in Moscow in 1900. Both her parents, Rachel and Aharon Feinbrun, belonged to Hovevei Zion and her father was also a member of the Benei Zion association in Moscow. Naomi had an older sister, Shulamit, and two younger brothers, Miron and Moshe. They grew up in Kishinev, Bessarabia, but the 1905 Kishinev pogrom did not reach the street where the family had lived.
Naomi Feinbrun studied at an elementary school where one hour of Hebrew was taught every day and later at a Jewish girls’ high school in Kishinev. The family moved back to Moscow in 1907 and after her high-school graduation (cum laude) in 1918 Feinbrun began her studies at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Moscow University. When her family again moved to Bessarabia in 1920, Feinbrun continued her studies at the University of Romania, in Cluj, Transylvania, where she received her first degree in botany in 1923. She then taught natural sciences for a while at the Jewish girls’ high school in Kishinev.
In 1924 the entire family emigrated to Palestine. Naomi was too old to use her parents’ familial immigration certificate, but a relative helped her by testifying that she had been a high-school student at the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasia in Tel Aviv before leaving for Moscow for a few years. Thanks to a recommendation from Rahel Katznelson, Feinbrun started work as a teacher at a school in Tel Adashim in the Jezreel Valley. During her period as a teacher she met the person who was about to change her life.
In 1925, in a study tour for natural sciences teachers to the Tavor Mountain, Feinbrun met Alexander Eig (1894–1938), the botanist who guided the tour. Eig fired her enthusiasm to be a researcher and remained her mentor and colleague until his death in 1938. The warm feelings she had for him and the close working relationship between the two partially explain the fact that Feinbrun never married. (She added “Dothan” later, when her brothers Hebraized their family name after the establishment of the state of Israel.)
Following the meeting with Eig, Feinbrun attended the Institute of Agriculture and Natural History in Tel Aviv, directed by Otto Warburg (1859–1938). Accepted as a guest researcher for a few months, she was given a half-time position in 1926. While she was working at the Institute, Feinbrun learnt English, primarily by using G. E. Posts’s book, Flora of Syria, Palestine and Sinai (Beirut 1898). From 1930 to 1938 her publications were in Hebrew or German, and only after 1938 did she start publishing in English.
When the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was founded in April 1925 it was decided that the Institute of Agriculture and Natural History would be part of the new university. Its name was changed to the Systematic Botany Branch, with Warburg still at its head. In 1929 Feinbrun became an untenured assistant at the university and moved to Jerusalem together with Alexander Eig and Michael Zohary (1898–1983). Together these three botanists in 1931 published the first full analytical flora book in Hebrew. In 1936 Eig established the Palestine Journal of Botany Jerusalem (Later: Israel Journal of Botany), in which Feinbrun and her colleagues used to publish their works. The first issue of the journal included a phytographic map based on the three researchers’ many field trips.
Budgetary problems and distance from the overseas scientific community plagued research at Hebrew University at this period. The latter turned into total isolation during World War II. At the same time, the land itself offered somewhat of a compensation. Being a bridge between Europe and Africa, the area is rife with plant and animal life that are transitional links between species on the neighboring continents. Consequently, many field trips were conducted locally and in bordering countries in order to study the local fauna and flora. While the systematic research was based on the European research tradition and on the colonial tradition of creating collections for museums of natural history, it was also influenced by the national atmosphere, one of emotional relationship to the landscape and a desire to become familiar with it, leading to a sense of belonging.
In 1933 Feinbrun joined a delegation of seven Hebrew University scientists who were invited to Iraq by the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. Their main purpose was to conduct a survey of the forests of Kurdistan—preparing an inventory of trees and presenting a proposal for afforestation and for preserving the forests. Other research expeditions in which Feinbrun participated were to Transjordan, the Sinai Peninsula, Lebanon, Cyprus and, in 1944, to the eastern desert in Egypt.
In its early years, the Hebrew University operated as a research facility, without formal teaching. Teaching of sciences began in the early 1930s and genetics was one of the six major subjects proposed in the curriculum of the Department of Botany. Naomi Feinbrun was selected to teach this subject, having specialized in cytological work with Hannan Oppenheimer (1905–1978), who was engaged in physiological botany in Rehovot. In 1931 Feinbrun went to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in order to supplement her knowledge and there she worked in the Department for Hereditary Research. In 1935 she spent two and a half months in the laboratory of Professor Alexandre Guilliermond at the Sorbonne University in Paris. When she returned to Palestine she began teaching genetics and cytology. Until the 1950s she was the only one who taught a course in genetics at the Hebrew University.
Meanwhile, with Dr. Eig as her supervisor, Feinbrun worked on her doctoral dissertation, “Monography study of the genus Bellevalia,” studying the number and form of chromosomes and using them in the systematic classification of this plant genus. She received her Ph.D. degree in 1938, but was promoted from instructor to lecturer only in 1952. She devoted her full attention to the study of local and Middle Eastern species, mostly grown in her experimental plots and investigated cytotaxonomically.
In 1953 Feinbrun spent a sabbatical year at the Kew Gardens herbarium in London and the herbariums of Edinburgh and Geneva. She became an associate professor in 1960, when there were only three other women at that rank at the Hebrew University and not even one at the rank of full professor. The other three women associate professors were Elisabeth Goldschmidt, Tscharna Rayss and Hanna Rozin, all in various fields of biology and medicine.
Feinbrun continued working as an octogenarian and even into her early nineties. The two volumes of Flora of Palestine, one of her most important works, were published in 1987, earning her a gold medal from Optima, the international organization of Mediterranean Sea botanists. In 1991 a new and updated analytical flora book appeared, written in collaboration with Avinoam Danin.
Naomi Feinbrun-Dothan died on March 8, 1995, shortly before her ninety-fifth birthday. Her memory lives on in a number of plants named in her honor by colleagues in Israel and abroad, among them Astragalus feinbruniae (1970), Bellevalia feinbruniae (1970) and Colchicum feinbruniae (1992).
Eig, A., M. Zohary and N. Feinbrun. Analytical Flora of Palestine (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1931; Zohary, M., and N. Feinbrun. Analytical Flora of Palestine. Second edition. Jerusalem: 1948; with M. Zohary. Flora of the Land of Israel: Iconography. Plates by Ruth Koppel. I. Pls. 1–50, 1949; 11. Pls. 51–100, 1952; III. Pls. 101–151 (Hebrew and English editions). Jerusalem: 1959; Wild Plants in the Land of Israel. Plates by Ruth Koppel. Tel Aviv: 1960 (Hebrew and English editions); Flora Palaestina. Part 3: Ericaceae-Compositae. Part 4: Monocotyledoneae. Jerusalem (in preparation).
“Useful wild plants in Palestine.” Ha-Sadeh 10 (1930): 298–301, 362–368; 433–477; “On the vegetation of Tel Aviv.” Nature and Country 2 (1933): 124–128; “Alexander Eig: A Biography.” Nature and Country 5 (1938): 412–418; “The genus Bellevalia in Palestine.” The Magnes Volume (1938): 386–389; The Rose: Edited and revised from a manuscript by the late M. Schwartzman. Tel Aviv: 1948, 1–64; “The contribution of the late Tuvia Kushnir to the plant knowledge of Palestine.” Nature and Country 7 (1948): 478–480; “In memory of a young botanist, Yitzhak Halevi.” Ha-Sadeh 28 (1948): 453–455; “Cytology.” In Encyclopedia of Agriculture, vol. 1.: 1966; “Species of Lycium in Palestine.” Mada 13 (1968): 221–224.
“Beitraege zur Kenntnis der Variabilität von Aegilops ventricosa Tausch.” Feede Repert. nov. Spec. Regni veg. 28 (1930): 65–66; “Beitraege zur Kenntnis der Umbelliferen Transjordaniens.“ Feede Repert. nov. Spec. Regni veg. 29 (1931): 133–136; with A. Eig. “Bellevalia desertorum. sp. n.” Beih. Bot. Centralbl. 49 (1932): 666–668; “Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Flora des Amanus-Gebirges (Syrien).” Beih. Bot. Centralbl. 51 (1933): 374–388; “Ueber die Variabilität von Trigonella monspeliaca L. und die pflanzen-geographischen Verhältnisse ihrer Formen.” Beih. Bot. Centrabl. 51 (1933): 389–396; “Schedae ad Floram Exsiccatam Palaestinae.” Centuria III 1–36 (1934); with A. Eig and M. Zohary. “E prelis Universitatis Hierosolymis.” Centuria IV (1938): 1–30; “New data on some cultivated plants and weeds of the Early Bronze Age in Palestine.” Palest. J. Bot. Jerusalem ser. 1 (1938): 238–240; “A monographic study on the genus Beb levalia Lapeyr. (Caryology, Taxonomy, Geography).” Palest. J. Bot. 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Kirsh, Nurit. "Naomi Feinbrun-Dothan." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/feinbrun-dotan-naomi>.