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Biography of Ephraim Katzir

Biography of Ephraim Katzir

Ephraim Katchalski-Katzir  (1916-2009) (also Ephraim Katzir, Efraim Katzir, originally Katchalski Hebrew:אפרים קציר) was born in Kiev on May 16, 1916, where his family had fled during World War I. His early childhood was spent in Kiev and in Lodz, Poland. He came to live in Palestine with his family in 1925. The family settled in Jerusalem, and Ephraim Katzir followed his brother, Aaron Katchalski-Katzir, in studying science. He graduated from the Rehavia Gymnasia in 1932. Though he began as a biology student, both he and his brother switched to the newly opened chemistry department of the Hebrew University.  He received an M.Sc from the Hebrew University in 1938 and a Ph.D. in 1941. Ephraim Katzir (Ephraim Katchalski-Katzir)

Efraim Katchalski-Katzir worked as an assistant in the Hebrew University after graduation, and began his research.  At the same time, he was also a youth leader in Hanoar Haoved. He joined the Haganah and graduated from the first Haganah officers course in 1939. He became commander of the student unit in the field forces ('Hish) and took part in various operations. In  1948, he worked on development of explosives for the Haganah, and in May of 1948, was appointed commander of the "Heyl Mada" (HEMED) - scientific research and development corps - of the IDF. The corps began with a budget of 15 pounds sterling that Ben Gurion gave to his brother, Aaron Katzir, eventually growing into the billion dollar Raphael organization. Of his combined career as Zionist activist and scientist, Katchalski-Katzir wrote:

Already in high school it was clear to me that, like all those of our generation, we would have to play our part in activities that had nothing to do with learning but were bound up with the national renaissance. Growing up in Palestine under the British mandate, and especially on the university campus, I was caught up in the ideological and political ferment of that time. Jews were returning to their ancient homeland after 2000 years, filled with the desire to build a democratic state in which we could determine our own future, revive our original language, and revitalize our culture. We were ready to forge a new society, which would be based on the principles of social justice defined by our biblical prophets and would offer a high quality of life enriched by the highest moral and spiritual values. In this exhilarating atmosphere, we threw ourselves with great enthusiasm into activities aimed at fulfilling the Zionist dream.

In the 1930s and 1940s the local Arab population, angered by the increasing Jewish presence, often attacked the Jews. We had to protect ourselves, and this we did by joining the illegal Jewish defense organization, the Haganah, which later became the Israel Defense Forces.

Thus, while still a student, I had already formed quite a clear idea of my goals in life. I would do what I could to help establish the State of Israel and contribute to its security and its social and economic development. In addition, I would attempt to do some original research while at the same time playing my part in raising a new generation of Israeli scientists and helping to create the physical and intellectual conditions in which science and technology could flourish in this region. Like Chaim Weizmann, whose life and work served as an inspiration to many young scientists, I believed with all my heart “that science will bring peace to this country, renew its youthful vigor and create the sources for new life, both spiritually and materially.” I have been lucky enough to spend my life in pursuit of my goals, with some success and considerable satisfaction.  (Katchalski-Katzir, E., Reflections, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Vol. 280, No. 17, Issue of April 29,  2005, pp 16529–16530).

In 1946, Chaim Weizmann recruited Katzir to help set up the Weizmann Institute.  Efraim Katchalski-Katzir  traveled to the United States to seek the assistance of friends in the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1946. In 1949, when the Institute was officially opened, Katchalski-Katzir founded the Department of Biophysics and became permanent head of the department when foreign scientists reneged on their commitment to come to Israel. Katzir was head of the Department of Biophysics at the Weizmann Institute from 1949 until his election as President of Israel in 1973.In 1951 he spent a sabbatical year at Harvard.

Katzir earned an international reputation for his original research in the field of synthetic polyamino acids as models of natural proteins, and his work on immobilized enzymes. Katzir and his students prepared the first synthetic polypeptide, poly-L-lysine, and showed that it is digested by trypsin. This work won international recognition. It became the starting point for the synthesis, by him and his many students, of numerous polyamino acids. Katzir and his students showed that synthetic polyamino acids  can serve as excellent models for the investigation of the physicochemical and biological properties of natural proteins. These seminal contributions have given Ephraim Katzir a unique and distinguished position in the field of protein science. 

Katzir also developed a synthetic fiber used for stitching internal wounds in surgery, which is dissolved by the body's enzymes. In 1950 he received the Weizmann prize for science from the municipality of Tel Aviv. In 1959, he was awarded the Israel Prize for Life Sciences jointly with his student Michael Sela, who was later president of the Weizmann Institute. He was chosen as a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences in 1960, and was awarded the Rothschild Prize in 1961. In 1966, Ephraim Katchalski-Katzir  was the first Israeli elected to Academy of Sciences of the United States, and in 1977 he was elected as a foreign fellow of the Royal Society of Great Britain.

Between 1966 and 1968 Ephraim Katzir served as chief scientist of the Israel Defense Department.  Between 1966 and 1969, at the invitation of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, he headed a committee charged with advising the government on scientific research. The committee submitted detailed recommendations, including the appointment of Chief Scientists charged with promoting applied research in governmental institutions. This led to greater cooperation among the government, academia, industry, and agriculture. It also stimulated a dramatic increase in government spending both on applied research and science-based activities in the Israeli economy. One of its conspicuous consequences was the establishment of science-based industries, with the encouragement and support of the Chief Scientist in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. Professor Katchalski-Katzir was involved in various aspects of scientific education. He founded the scientific journal Mada, and headed the Israeli Association for the Promotion of Science.

In 1972, Ephraim Katchalski-Katzir's brother Aaron was murdered in the Japanese Red Army attack at Lod airport. On May 24 1973, Ephraim Katzir was elected President of Israel and served one term until 1978. In October of 1973, the Yom Kippur War began, and Katzir made numerous visits to the front lines to meet combat soldiers, to visit the homes of bereaved families, and to visit the wounded in the hospitals. In November 1977, toward the end of Katchalski-Katzir's term, he had the unique honor of hosting President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in the first ever official visit of an Arab head of state.  President Ephraim Katzir participated actively in promoting education and social issues. He filled an important role in developing and implementing a program to establish Jewish studies at academic centers worldwide, helped institutions of higher education in Israel, and focused on problems in the educational system. Katzir also came to the aid of disadvantaged families and encouraged voluntarism, which he regarded as an important measure both for reducing social gaps in Israeli society and increasing solidarity and unity. At his initiative, the Presidential Award for Volunteerism was inaugurated, a prize granted annually in recognition of 12 individuals who distinguished themselves in volunteer work.

In all of his public appearances during his presidency, Professor Ephraim Katzir took care to remind the citizens of Israel of the dream of the founding fathers of Zionism to establish a model society as an integral part of restoring Jewish sovereignty in the historical homeland. He never tired of telling his fellow scientists that they must leave their ivory towers and contribute toward improving society and solving its problems.

At the conclusion of his term as president, Katchalski-Katzir  returned to active scientific life, helping to set up the Department of Biophysics in the University of Tel Aviv. He was responsible in large part for setting up Israel's biotechnology-based industries in this period. He also served as international President of the ORT vocational school network, helped establish other colleges, and continued to advise government agencies.

In 1985 he was awarded the Japan prize for his work on immobilized enzymes. He later returned to the Weizmann Institute.  In 2005, Katchalski-Katzir summarized his vision of the future thus:

I have always thought of Israel as a pilot plant state in which dedicated people can explore all kinds of imaginative and creative possibilities aimed at improving society and the state. I feel certain that in the years to come we will continue to operate as a testing ground, drawing on the fruits of science and technology to determine the best and most satisfying ways of living in a country geared to the future. The highest standards of health care, educational practice, and cultural and recreational facilities will flow from research and development in the natural sciences, as well as in automation, computer science, information technology, communication, transportation, and biotechnology. I believe it is possible to create such a pilot plant state by encouraging the development of science-based high technology industry and agriculture. Once it gains momentum, this core of activity will contribute significantly to the economic growth and prosperity of the country. In this pilot plant state, I would like to see a free, pluralistic society, a democracy whose citizens live by the rule of law, and a welfare state in which public services are efficiently handled. Great emphasis will be laid on excellence in science and research, literature, and the arts, thus enriching the intellectual and cultural life of every citizen.

We Jews are eternal optimists. We have always believed, even in the depths of our despair, that the Messiah will come, even if he tarries a little. I am sure that ultimately we will create our model society geared for life in the twenty-first century and founded on the great moral and ethical tenets that we have held sacred since ancient times. (Katchalski-Katzir, E., Reflections , Journal of Biological Chemistry, Vol. 280, No. 17, Issue of April 29, 2005, pp. 16540–16541).

Ephraim Katchalski-Katzir lived at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, and held the Theodore R. Racoosin Chair of Biophysics, in the Department of Membrane Research and Biophysics, where he pursues research in phage display techniques and protein-protein interactions. He died on May 30, 2009, shortly after his 93 birthday. 

Ami Isseroff

See also: Presidents of Israel

More Israeli and Zionist Biographies The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel



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