Here is a name you should know: Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch

A geneticist whose research helped to bring forth the field of developmental genetics, Gluecksohn-Waelsch died Nov. 7 at her home in Manhattan, one month after turning 100.

The New York Times obituary published today recounts her many scientific achievements and honors, including receiving the National Medal of Science in 1993.

I also found a very short Quicktime movie
of an interview with Gluecksohn-Waelsch — in which she describes receiving her doctorate at a time when genes were not recognized for having a major influence on embryonic development — along with this book chapter that includes a close review of her work. Thanks to Google Scholar, many of her articles are available.

In 1932, she earned her doctorate in embryology at the University of Freiburg. She fled Nazi Germany soon thereafter and landed in New York, where it took her three years to find a job. In 1936, she was hired as a research associate at Columbia University, where she worked with the famous geneticist L.C. Dunn — but was never promoted beyond research associate, despite her groundbreaking work.

She later joined the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and was chair of the department of genetics from 1963 to 1976. Though she officially "retired" in 1978, she continued her research into the 1990s.

Gluecksohn-Waelsh outlived two husbands. She has a daughter and a son, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Lee M. Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public policy at Princeton, who is quoted in The New York Times obit on the importance of Gluecksohn-Waelsch’s work, wrote a summary of her life and research when the Genetics Society of America awarded her the 1999 Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal, recognizing a lifetime contribution to the science of genetics.

Silver’s remarks, published in the January 2000 issue of the journal Genetics, are worth highlighting. With genuine respect and admiration, he describes Gluecksohn-Waelsch’s work, which was all the more remarkable considering the sexist and cultural barriers she had to overcome:

In Dunn’s "mouse house" at Columbia University, Salome’s scientific career flourished. She combined her embryological expertise with new-found genetic knowledge from her Columbia colleagues to demonstrate the very real role that single gene mutations in the mouse t complex had on the process of mammalian development and gametogenesis, repudiating her original advisor’s antigene bias. Indeed, Salome was among the first to show the power of genetic analysis in the study of development.

While Salome experienced anti-Semitism firsthand in Nazi Germany, she experienced sexism firsthand in Ivy League America. After nineteen years at Columbia, and the publication of numerous breakthrough articles in genetics, Salome still held the same Research Associate position that she had been given at the beginning of her tenure there. In 1955, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine came to her rescue by providing her with a full faculty position in their new Department of Genetics, where she has remained ever since.

In 1980, I had the personal pleasure of working with Salome at Einstein, when she was just seventy-three years old. At that time, she still went into her mouse room every morning of the week to examine and record newborn mice and to set up new matings of animals that carried various mutations in the t complex on chromosome 17 and around the albino locus on chromosome 7. Her breeding studies were supported by one of the longest continuously running grants ever to be awarded by the American Cancer Society.

It was not until late in her career (when most people her age were already retired) that Salome was recognized for the major contributions that she had made to the field of developmental genetics and for her role in nurturing and encouraging women to pursue scientific careers.

You can read more about all those honors and awards here. This one may not sound as grand as being made a foreign fellow of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom, but it’s worth mentioning the honorary degree she received from Columbia University in 1995 — awarded, writes Silver, "in recognition of their earlier inability to retain a truly great woman of science."


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