November 9, 2007 - (BRONX, NY) - Dr. Salome Gluecksohn Waelsch, Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Molecular Genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, one of the pioneering scientists of the 20th century, died November 7th at her home in Manhattan. She was 100 years old.
Dr. Waelsch, a founder of the fundamental field of biological science known today as developmental genetics, received worldwide recognition for her contributions to our understanding of the way genes determine how an embryo forms. At a time when many geneticists did not believe that genes, studied up to that time extensively in the fruit fly, controlled the complex events of embryogenesis, Dr. Waelsch was the first to demonstrate that classical Mendelian genes directed the development of a mouse. For her work she was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Science by President Clinton in 1993, the nation's highest scientific honor. She received the Thomas Hunt Morgan medal of the Genetics Society of America and the first Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Cancer Society. She was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a foreign member of the Royal Society of London. She also received an honorary doctorate degree from Yeshiva University, a Spirit of Achievement Award from the Albert Einstein's National Women's Division and an honorary doctorate of science from Columbia University.
Born in Danzig, Germany, in 1907, Dr. Waelsch earned a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Freiberg, in Germany, in 1932. She served as a research assistant in cell biology at the University of Berlin for a year but, as Adolf Hitler came to power, Jews were being fired in universities throughout Germany.
Dr. Waelsch and her husband Rudolf Schoenheimer, himself a young Jewish biochemist of great promise - fled Germany for careers in the United States. After the untimely death of Schoenheimer, she later married Heinrich Waelsch, a neurochemist.
In the United States, in the 1930s, Dr. Waelsch again faced discrimination- this time because she was a woman seeking work in a field wholly dominated by men. She began her scientific career at Columbia University in the laboratory of L. C. Dunn, a well-known scientist in the field of mammalian genetics. She was offered laboratory space in which she could study the development of the mouse - albeit without a salary.
In 1938, Dr. Waelsch made a major breakthrough in the field of genetics, making it possible to trace the effects of genes on development from the embryo to the mature mammal. This work laid the foundation for all future advances in developmental genetics. Dr. Waelsch's research proved vital to improving the understanding of birth defects, particularly understanding the cause of mistakes in the development process that result in defects.
Dr. Waelsch joined the founding faculty of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine when the new medical school opened in 1955. Starting as an associate professor of anatomy in 1955, she was named professor in 1958, and was appointed acting chair of genetics when the new department was created in 1963. In 1973, Dr. Waelsch was named chair of genetics and served in that capacity through 1976. In 1978, she was named professor emerita, yet she continued to carry on her research, coming in to her laboratory daily and maintaining her mouse colony until her mid-90's.
In 1982, nearly 50 years after fleeing Germany, her college alma mater, the University of Freiberg, awarded Dr. Waelsch with its "golden doctoral diploma," in recognition of her lifetime of distinguished achievements. Ironically, 1982 also marked the 50th anniversary of Hitler's rise to power. Therefore, while she accepted the honor, Dr. Waelsch refused to attend the commencement exercises in Germany at which her honorary degree was to be presented. Instead, she sent the university's deans a poignant letter, in which she wrote, in part:
"...My feelings of appreciation and gratefulness... are tempered by feelings of bitterness. I cannot accept the recognition of this anniversary as though the 50 years since the date of my promotion had passed smoothly, and without remembering the Holocaust and its impact. I regret the tendency to forget and deny the tremendous human and political upheavals of the past half century and to celebrate anniversaries as though nothing had happened. To give expression to this regret is my duty towards all of those who suffered under the Nazi regime, among them the man whose name our medical school carries with the greatest pride..." The letter was read at the university's commencement ceremony.
Dr. Waelsch was widowed in 1966, when her second husband, a professor at Columbia University, died. She is survived by a daughter, Naomi Kerest, of Block Island, RI, a son Peter, of Boston, three grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.
Dr. Salome G. Waelsch of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine accepts the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for scientists, from President Clinton at White House ceremony, as Vice President Gore looks on. Dr. Waelsch received the Medal in recognition of her pioneering research in developmental genetics. September 30, 1993