In Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, Harry Ostrer wrote about a series of scientists who contributed to our contemporary understanding of Jewishness. This week, he provides a series of short vignettes that describe their contributions about what it means to be a Jew.
Chaim Sheba, a surgeon general of the Israeli army and later the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Health, was also a colorful, pioneering Israeli geneticist. Early in his career, Sheba stumbled into human genetics in the process of preparing to practice medicine in his adopted country. Born in Austria, he left for Palestine with a “still wet” medical school diploma from the University of Vienna expecting to “dry the uninhabited swamps.” Drying the swamps was a way to eliminate malaria, a disease common not only in Palestine, but throughout the coastal Mediterranean basin. While on the boat to Palestine, Sheba read a book about tropical diseases and learned that one of the major complications of malaria was blackwater fever. Typically, the “black water” urine of individuals with red blood cells disrupted by malarial parasites contained the dark-colored breakdown products of the oxygen-carrying protein, hemoglobin.
When Sheba arrived in Palestine, he learned about an unexpected springtime occurrence of blackwater fever caused by eating fava beans, a popular Mediterranean delicacy. Favism had been known in ancient Greek times with Pythagoras, Diogenes and Plutarch all warning about the dangers of eating fava beans. Eating the beans or even smelling the pollen caused a sudden illness of abdominal pains and vomiting, followed by pallor, jaundice and brown-colored urine – all resulting from the rapid breakdown of red blood cells. During the 1930s, all of the patients that Sheba observed with favism were Jewish males of Iraqi, Yemenite, or Kurdish origin. During World War II, while serving as a surgeon in the British Army, Sheba observed men who experienced severe breakdown of red blood cells resulting from ingestion of the newly developed antibiotic and anti-malarial drugs. These reactions occurred primarily among Iraqi, Turkish, Greek, Yemenite, and Kurdish Jewish soldiers, and were also common among non-Jewish Greek and Cypriot soldiers, and Italian prisoners of war. To Sheba, it was striking that Ashkenazi Jews did not share these sensitivities that were prevalent among their co-religionists.