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Chana Malogolowkin: Visiting researcher

A geneticist based in Tel-Aviv tells of her travels through countries such as Brazil, the United States and Israel

MIGUEL BOYAYANWhen the young student Chana Malogolowkin entered the at that time University of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, biology was a course that was mixed in with geology, mineralogy and paleontology, areas grouped together under the name generics of Natural History. It was the beginning of the 40’s, an era in which the genetics of the drosophila (the fruit fly, the model organism for study in this area) was hot due to the presence in Brazil of the researcher Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975).

A Russian rooted in the United States, Dobzhansky was the major authority on genetics and evolution. During 1943, he spent six months lecturing and setting up courses in Brazil and returned in 1948 to spend a further year. During this period, he helped to form a complete generation of Brazilian geneticists, such as Crodowaldo Pavan, Antonio Brito da Cunha, Newton Freire-Maia and Oswaldo Frota-Pessoa, among others.

Chana Malogolowkin, born in the Minas Gerais town of Maria da Fé and raised in Rio, makes up part of this generation. After completing the Natural History course, she joined other researchers at the General Biology Department of the College of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters of the University of São Paulo (USP) to study within Dobzhansky’s group. In 1951 she became one of the first women to achieve the title of doctorate in Rio. She moved to the United States and, starting from there, consolidated her academic career abroad.

First at Columbia University in the State of New York by inheriting the chair left by Dobzhansky when he retired. Afterwards in Israel, to where she went after getting married. There, she was a key figure in establishing the Drosophila Genetics Department and in the creation of the Evolution Institute at the University of Haifa.

Chana is proud of her career only through what she has achieved in science and has not the least bit of feminist leaning – though she tells at least one anecdote in which she was the victim of male chauvinism. A widow, with one daughter and two grandchildren, she lives in Tel-Aviv. Of Jewish origin, but a declared atheist, at times she has a hard time with her neighbors – instead of keeping the Sabbath, she goes out by car to the city. At seventy eight years of age, the researcher spoke with Pesquisa FAPESP during one of her now rarer visits to Brazil.

Could we begin talking about your doctorate degree, one of the first to be achieved by a female researcher in Rio de Janeiro.
In 1946, I had completed my course in Natural History at the National Philosophy School of the at that time University of Brazil, currently the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). During 1948 I went to USP to work with professor Theodosius Dobzhansky. He was the great specialist in genetics and evolution and came to Brazil in 1943 to give a series of lectures and afterwards returned, through a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship, to form a group of Brazilians that would work in this area. It was the first group of geneticists studying the drosophila that appeared in Brazil. It was only after having studied the drosophila that some of them went on to human genetics. Afterwards things developed in a different manner. Some went on to genetics in medicine, others to animal and vegetable genetics.

Who was part of this group?
In São Paulo there was André Dreyfus, the chaired professor of the General Biology Department. It was he who encouraged the stay in Brazil of Dr. Dobzhansky through the Rockefeller Foundation. Crodowaldo Pavan and Antônio Brito da Cunha were assistants to Dreyfus. With the arrival of Dobzhansky, other researchers and undergraduates grouped themselves around him: I came from Rio, Antônio Cordeiro from the South, Newton Freire-Maia from Minas. And there were others. For example, Oswaldo Frota-Pessoa, who afterwards came to USP, was linked to the group though he remained in Rio. We worked with Dobzhansky during a full year, and when we had completed our research, he asked me to accompany him to Columbia University in New York State. In the years that followed, it was common to have a Brazilian researcher working in his laboratory at Columbia.

What led you towards your doctorate?
When Dobzhansky invited me to accompany him to the United States, he asked the Rockefeller Foundation to give me a grant. It so happened that the Foundation checked up with respect to me and discovered that I wasn’t even full time at the Philosophy School nor having my doctorate degree. They only gave a grant to those who had both. Consequently Dobzhansky began to pressure me to do my doctorate degree. The Foundation also decided to help me and left aside the full time position, demanding only the doctorate degree.

What was the theme of your thesis and in what area?
It was about the evolution of the genitalia in the Drosophila (Sophophora) group, in Natural History. Tropic History covered the geological part. It was much later that we separated geology and biology. And therefore with this theme I did my doctorate thesis during 1950/51. I finished and went off to Columbia University. When Dobzhansky left the university because he had to retire and went on to the Rockefeller University, he left the chair open. Among three candidates, I was the one chosen and I worked there until 1964.

Which piece of research carried out by you had the greatest impact?
What brought with it a lot of curiosity was a discovery that I made concerning the female drosophila that would not give origin to males. During this time I came every year to Brazil and this piece of work ended up being heavily talked about here and there. On one of my visits I was invited to the National Museum to give a lecture on the question. One of the scientists who had been working at the museum, whose name I can’t remember, a strong feminist, listened to my explanation and at the end stated enthusiastically: “Ah! This is fantastic! This should happen with the human species.”

How did this discovery come about?
I checked that only females of the drosophila were born in one of the culture mediums. I found this very strange and noted that it had egg cells that were dark and not opaque. I knew that there must have been something in the cytoplasm of that nucleus that was killing off the males. Consequently I sought out a genetics colleague at Yale University. He mastered the technique of injecting substances into the drosophila, something very difficult given the size of the insect. Just imagine: trying to inject into the stomach of a fruit fly! This was something very serious and very difficult.

We carried out a homogenization of these eggs, waited to see what would happen in physiological serum and we injected it into the stomach of the flies. And they began not to produce males. We discovered that this happened because of a spirochaetales, a spiral bacterium, which impeded the formation of the males. This story is worth telling because it opened up the possibility of avoiding pests, that is to say, one could let loose sterile females in zones contaminated by these insects.

In the United States, did you work only with genetics?
Yes, only with genetics. In 1964 I got married and went off to Israel at the invitation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I worked for a year. Later, I ended up at the University of Haifa. And there I had considerable help from the Rockefeller Foundation. I received US$ 500 million for the founding of a genetics laboratory on drosophila.

Your husband was also a researcher?
No, he was a lawyer and was already living in Israel. I was on the point of going to North Carolina University, in the United States. But between going there and going off with my husband to Israel, I preferred Israel. This was back in 1964 and I was thirty nine years of age.

At that time then, Israel was still a fledgling nation, since the Israeli State was founded in 1948.
Yes, it was no more than a settlement.

Who finances tertiary education today in Israel?
The universities have funding from the State, but it is not a budget that helps with all aspects of research. In Israel, research is carried out more with the assistance of external support. There are grants and scholarships from foundations such as for example the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations.

Did you carry out any other pieces of research that had similar repercussions to that of the drosophila that only produced females?
Not as bombastic as that, no. In Israel there exists considerable interest about the drosophila. The climate is very hot, but it is not the same type of heat as we have here in Brazil. In certain locations there exist a group of flies and in others no. Consequently I began to check and found many fruit flies that had never been studied.

How was your move to Israel?
It was very difficult. I arrived in a country where I didn’t speak their language, didn’t know how to write, nor to read. I always had to make use of English in order to communicate. At the Hebrew University I lectured only to doctorate students. The problem is that one or more lectures I gave in English, but some seminars I had to give in Hebrew. From the students came the demand for Hebrew, they don’t want only English. Consequently, I had to learn the language and I learned it in six months. I went on a super intensive course of Hebrew studies. I had a teacher who helped me: she went with me in the car and even before the lesson helped me some more. Now I have learned to speak but not to write. When I went to the University of Haifa, I had two assistants. I wrote out the lectures in English and they translated them into Hebrew using Latin letters, and I lectured in this manner, reading in Latin letters the lectures that I was supposed to give in Hebrew.

Do foreign professors still suffer from the same fate today?
No, today things are much better advanced. At that time there were very few emigrants and now there has been a lot of emigration. Today, there are three official languages in Israel: Hebrew, English and Arabic.

For how long did you remain at this first university?
At the Hebrew University I stayed one year. I lived in Tel-Aviv and it was very difficult to go to Jerusalem every day. The journey was one hour and a half. But it took me two and a half hours from my home to the university. I had to get up very early and the road was very torturous, poor, with parts for only one car to pass. Tel-Aviv is at sea level and Jerusalem some 600 to 700 meters in altitude. At the University, within the Zoology Department, they gave me a room in which the roof was make of corrugated metal, something provisional, because there was no room in the principal building. During the summer it was a hot house, something tremendous. There was no air conditioning. And in winter it was biting cold.

Is their summer comparable to ours?
It’s an awful lot worse. And in the winter there’s snow. Consequently I did the following: I took my microscope with me, remained in a room of constant temperature of 18º, and only left there when it was time to go home. For this reason, I left the university thinking that it would be easy to find work in Tel-Aviv. I had had a promise, from the Tel-Aviv University that I would be able to work there. They said that I was to return to the United States, gather in some funding and construct a new building.

And consequently I would set up the genetics department. But this didn’t happen, I remained for some time without working, until I was indicated to work at the University of Barilan, also in Tel-Aviv. They needed someone to lecture on genetics. I was surprised, because this is a religious university. I thought it somewhat strange. The religious people, especially the orthodox, don’t take kindly to the study of the genetics of evolution.

How was your experience there?
– Who recommended me to the rector was a professor from the University of Barilan itself. I went to have an interview, I waited outside a little until the rector sent for me, I went in and said: “You would like to see me?” He replied: “It’s you who wishes to see me!” Or that’s to say, I had already gotten off to a bad start. The problem is that I get very shy at these moments and freeze up. But I managed to say: “Yes, I really was me who asked for the interview”. and sat down. Then he asked me what I was and I replied that I was a geneticist looking for work, and he said: “You, my dear, are a geneticist? I’ve never seen your name related to genetics”. I explained that this to me was very strange as I had lots of work published in the area, and answered back: “Perhaps you’ve not read much on genetics. For example, you yourself are a chemist, are you not?” I asked with a certain amount of venom. He replied: “I am.” And so I just had to say: “I’ve never seen your name related to chemistry because I don’t read papers published on chemistry”. He replied in a disrespectful manner: “For me, a woman’s place is in the kitchen!”

I don’t suppose you managed to get the position?
Exactly. He said “Goodbye”, leave, and clearly I was not accepted by the university. Some time later I went to the University of Haifa thanks to some friends from Switzerland, Germany and England who were attending a genetics congress in Israel and came to note that I wasn’t working: I had left the Hebrew University, had not been given the opportunity at Tel-Aviv, and was knocked about by the Barilan.

Did your friends know that you were looking for a job?
They thought that I had stopped working because I got married and no longer needed to work. When they found me in Tel-Aviv I explained the situation and they managed to get me a job at the University of Haifa. It was excellent, because I then knew that I could receive considerable help from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Your laboratory bore fruit?
It was from that laboratory I founded the Evolution Institute. Today they are carrying out genetic work on the drosophila that is very interesting, in Haifa itself, at different habitats. One, in a mountainous zone that does not receive the sun, and another that receives the sun all day long. Within these habitats, the environments are completely different for the fruit flies, which as well are of different types. The laboratory’s researchers are carrying out an excellent piece of work on the ecology of both field sites.

To what do you attribute your difficulties in Israel? Prejudice because of the fact that you’re a woman or to a country in a state of formation?
There was only prejudice at the University of Barilan. But in the other cases, no. It was the lack of finance itself. They were starting up a country, there were lots of intellectuals and not enough money to sustain more research.

How was daily life in Israel?
It was a life with a lot of hard work. I left my home at 6:30 am already with everything ready for my husband: lunch and dinner already prepared, because he would arrive home sometimes after eight o’clock in the evening. I had to look after myself: to do the shopping, to wash the clothes, everything, as well as working at the university. There was no such thing as a maid at that time.

When did you retire?
When my husband fell ill in 1979, so as to be able to treat him (he died some nine years ago). Then I left the University of Haifa. But until only a short time ago, when they needed me I returned to them. Today, I only do a little bit of assessing work.

Don’t you have problems being a non-practicing Jew in Israel?
I am a Jew in name only. In truth I’m an atheist. I live in a building that has religious people who complain when I go out in my car at the weekend. Saturday is the day of rest., when everything is closed, and to go out by car is something that is not appreciated by the Jews. But I don’t care and I go out anyway.