Lives of the fellows

Saul Aaron Adler

b.17 May 1895 d.25 January 1966
OBE(1947) MB BCh Leeds(1917) DTM(1920) MRCP(1937) FRS(1957) FRCP(1958)

Saul Adler was born in Karelitz, Russia, in 1895. His parents were also born in Russia. His father, a Rabbi, was a Hebrew scholar, but as he objected to earning his living as a Rabbi he attended to a small shop between his studies. Saul learnt Hebrew from his father before he was five, and knew the intricacies of its grammar before he was eight. The family came to England in 1900, when Saul was five years old, and settled in Leeds. The father encouraged the son to acquire a mastery of English as well as Hebrew. Like his mother, Saul was modest, considerate, and imprudently generous. He was awarded a medical scholarship to Leeds University in 1912. At the University he was captain of the Chess Club and developed a talent for mathematics; he also translated Byron and Tennyson into Hebrew and Yiddish. The Professor of Pathology at Leeds, J.M. Stewart, and also Moynihan, had a marked influence on him. Saul qualified in medicine in 1917, took a commission in the RAMC and was posted to Mesopotamia where tropical diseases interested him. On demobilisation, he joined the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and later worked in Sierra Leone.

In 1923 he married Sophie Husden, a Jewess of Russian extraction. His intense Zionist zeal resulted in his moving to Palestine in 1924, where he was appointed Research Fellow at the Hebrew University in the Department of Microbiology. He became Associate Professor of Parasitology in 1928, and Professor in 1934, and he continued in this post until his death.

The immense reputation of Adler is based on an astonishing range of achievements. Together with Theodor, he made a major contribution to the epidemiology of Leishmaniasis.

By 1926 he had shown that it was possible to infect human volunteers with Leishmania tropica by inoculating leptomonads from the upper alimentary tract of laboratory-bred and artificially infected Phlebotomus. In 1941 he achieved proof of the transmission of L. tropica by the bite of a Phlebotomus. He developed serological methods for the identification of Leishmania species and strains. He introduced into Israel vaccination against Theileria in cattle and tick fever. His measures much reduced mortality and were instrumental in the development of a flourishing dairy industry. It was Saul Adler, with the assistance of Haim Ben-Menahem, then head of the animal house of the Hebrew University, who succeeded in breeding in captivity the wild Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auratus), thus introducing this remarkable creature to the research laboratories. All the hamsters in every laboratory the world over are descended from the two females and one male that he bred in Jerusalem. He was the first to recognise the peculiar relapse forms of Plasmodium ovale of man. His invitation to Peking, by the Chinese Academy of Science, in 1965, in the era of Chinese isolation, created a sensation in Israel and a flutter beyond. He returned full of admiration for the work and potential of the Chinese.

On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origins of Species, Adler translated it into euphonious Hebrew. This work became a best-seller in Israel and he was awarded the Tschernochowsky Prize. The writer of this memoir was present when Chain lectured in Jerusalem on the structure of penicillin. Adler was in the Chair and seemed to have been dozing during most of the guest’s exposition. Chain spoke in English, and Adler was asked to give a summary in Hebrew. He gave a magnificent 15 minute summary which electrified the audience.

Adler’s house in Jerusalem was at the Mandelbaum Gate, a portal between Arab and Jewish Jerusalem and a storm centre of the Arab-Jewish struggle. In April 1948, I had to phone Adler to be ready to vacate his house at an hour’s notice. The bus descending from Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus would slow down opposite his house and allow him to jump on with two suitcases. His house could no longer be defended. Adler jumped onto the bus, a case in each hand. The events of the 1948 war shook his deepest sensibilities and it took him several months to return to creative activities. Everyone in Jerusalem was familiar with the quiet walker, roaming through the streets at all hours, eyes to the ground, a cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth; so deeply absorbed in thought that he did not return the greetings of his closest friends. The story goes that one day, after a night in the laboratory, he made his way in the morning towards his house. He momentarily lost his bearings. He saw a crowd of children playing in the street and asked one of them where Saul Adler lived. The reply was ‘Don’t you remember me, Daddy?’.

His department was among the smallest in the Medical School as regards space and staff. He was too independent, too self-contained, too scholarly, too philosophical to fight for space, for extra staff, or for political power in the Medical School. He occasionally allowed unsuitable members of the staff to stay on too long in his department out of consideration for human souls. Although he contributed enormously to the creation of the new medical school in Jerusalem, he did not seek nor did he have much influence in the day to day running of the school.

His courses in parasitology for medical personnel of the Allied Forces stationed in the Middle East during World War II are still recalled warmly. He was a senior consultant to the World Health Organisation for tropical medicine, but was never offered beds in tropical diseases at the Jerusalem University Hospital. Of course, he was consulted on a host of problems continually and his help was valued. His laboratory became the WHO International Leishmaniasis Reference Centre. Dr Ann Foner Hyman was his co-worker.

Among his teaching contributions were brilliant lectures and seminars on amoebiasis in humans. He triggered off a piquant controversy among clinicians, scientists, and historians when he suggested very credibly that Darwin suffered from Chagas’ disease. Honours were heaped upon him by Governments and great scientific institutions.

Adler’s son, Jonathan, Associate Professor of Physiology in Jerusalem, is a VMD (Pennsylvania) and specialises in the physiology of ruminants. A daughter, Judith Ilan, is Assistant Professor of Developmental Biology at Case Western Reserve Medical School. The younger son, Asher, is Senior Lecturer in Physics at the Technion, Haifa.

Saul Adler was a star shining bright in the firmament of Israel. Jerusalem was his natural habitat. He paced its streets in quiet ecstasy. He lifted his eyes to the hills and found inspiration. From Saul to Saul there was no one like Saul.

Eli Davis
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[Brit.med.J., 1966, 1, 362, 487, 744, 1131; Lancet, 1966, 1, 326]

(Volume VI, page 5)

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