Elisabeth Goldschmidt was the founder of genetic studies as a research and teaching discipline at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She saw in the mass immigration of Jewish communities to Israel a unique opportunity for genetic research that might also contribute to the welfare of society, and in consequence founded the systematic research in human genetics and genetic counseling services in Israel.
Born Elisabeth Wechsler to an Orthodox Jewish family in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on September 22, 1912, she started to study medicine at the University of Frankfurt in 1932, but left Germany for London when Hitler came to power in 1933. Unable to pursue her medical studies, she took zoology and botany. In 1936 she received her B.Sc. (Honours) and immigrated with her husband, Joseph Goldschmidt, to Palestine (later Israel), where she raised her two children. Like many of those who later became professors at the Hebrew University, she earned her living teaching in schools while studying and working, first as a volunteer and, from 1938 to 1942, as a research assistant, at the Department of Zoology of the university. In 1942 she submitted her Ph.D. thesis on “Cytological studies in Chironomidae” and was accepted as a junior assistant at the Department of Zoology. In 1950 she was appointed an Instructor in Genetics. In the same year a fellowship from the American University Women’s Association enabled her to work in the laboratories of Theodosius Dobzhansky at Columbia University in New York and of Curt Stern at the University of California at Berkeley. Upon her return to the Hebrew University in 1951 Goldschmidt pursued her intensive research and initiated a teaching program in genetics. Already in 1952–1953, when the topic was still quite unpopular in medical schools, she delivered a series of lectures in genetics to medical students.
In her early research in systematic cytology Goldschmidt was especially interested in adaptations to harsh conditions, such as extreme salinity. She soon extended her interests to the genetic dynamics of populations, studying wild populations of Drosophila flies. In 1953 she went to Ernst Hadorn’s laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland, to learn the newly introduced technique of paper chromatography. Whereas this research aimed at the genetic control of developmental physiology of eye pigments in the flies, her interest in the genetics of human diseases already started to take priority. In coordination with the Medical School she visited institutes of human genetics in Copenhagen and Milan. Soon thereafter she began to provide genetic counseling services in cooperation with physicians at the Hadassah Hospital.
Goldschmidt insisted on keeping at the frontline of genetic research in her own work and in that of her students, while at the same time always being alert to the special research opportunities of the Israeli scene. Her own studies and those of her expanding group included the dynamics of wild populations of Drosophila species, the induction of mutations and chromosome rearrangements, and physiological genetics of eye color in Drosophila. In the late 1950s she cooperated with Elisabeth Stumm-Zollinger in comparing chromosomal polymorphism in natural populations of Drosophila subobscura in Austria with those of Israel, which were ecologically- marginal populations at the edge of the desert.
She systematically built her research project in human genetics. Her attention was directed towards the diversity in the frequencies of consanguineous matings in various communities and their possible consequences. Goldschmidt began studying the distribution of Tay-Sachs disease, which was already considered to be a “hereditary Jewish disease,” but soon her main effort turned to hereditary hemolytic diseases that were prevalent in some communities.
In September 1961 Goldschmidt, together with Chaim Sheba and Raphael Falk, convened a Conference on Human Population Genetics. At this conference she brought together persons who were doing research relevant to human genetics, mainly in the medical professions, and presented their work in an exhibit on the genetics of Israel’s populations.
In 1955 Goldschmidt was the first president of the Genetics Circle that preceded The Genetics Society of Israel. She led the Society’s campaign against the decision to hold the 11th International Congress of Genetics in Germany, where, during the Nazi regime, physicians and scientists participated in the abuses of genetics. The Congress eventually convened in 1963 in The Hague in the Netherlands. By 1963 Goldschmidt and her students had founded the Laboratory of Genetics at the Hebrew University, which within a couple of years became the full-fledged Department of Genetics.
In her last years Goldschmidt paid special attention to the highly inbred Jewish communities from Kurdistan. She noted the low frequency of many hereditary diseases in these communities, suggesting that generations of intensive inbreeding “cleansed” the communities of genes with deleterious effects. On the other hand, some hemolytic diseases were extremely common in these communities, suggesting increased resistance to malaria of the genetic carriers. Her associate Tirza Cohen carried on this work after Goldschmidt’s untimely death.
SELECTED WORKS BY ELISABETH GOLDSCHMIDT
The Genetics of Migrant and Isolate Populations. Editor (1963).
“Multiple sex-chromosome mechanisms and polyploidy in animals” Journal of Genetics 51 ( 1953); “Two years’ survey of population dynamics in Drosophila melanogaster,” with J. Wahrman, A. Ledermann-Klein, & R. Weiss. Evolution 9 (1955); “Geographical differentiation of inversion systems in Drosophila subobscura,” with E. Stumm-Zollinger. Evolution 13 (1959); “Changing marriage systems in the Jewish communities of Israel” with A. Ronen, & I. Ronen. Annals of Human Genetics 24 (1960); “Inter-ethnic mixture among the communities of Israel,” with T. Cohen. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 29 (1964); “Thalassaemia types among Kurdish Jews in Israel,” with A. Horowitz, T. Cohen, & C. Levene. British Journal of Haematology 12 (1966).
Farkas, Sara Elisabeth Goldschmidt (1912–1970) Collected Publications. (mimeographed) Jerusalem: 1977.
Cohen, T. and R. Falk “The late Prof. Elisabeth Goldschmidt” (Hebrew). Mada 15 (1970).
Wahrman, J. “Elisabeth Goldschmidt, 1912–1970.” Genetics 71 (1972).
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Falk, Raphael. "Elisabeth Goldschmidt." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 25, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/goldschmidt-elisabeth>.