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Ephraim Katzir

(1916 - 2009)

Professor Ephraim Katzir - eminent scientist and the fourth President of the State of Israel - was born in Kiev in 1916 as Ephraim Katchalski. Katzir, who Hebraicized his name when he became President, was what Israelis call "almost a Sabra"; his family immigrated to British-ruled Palestine when he was six years old, and he grew up in Jerusalem. Following high school in Jerusalem, he enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he studied botany, zoology and bacteriology before finally concentrating on biochemistry and organic chemistry. In 1941, he completed his Ph.D. thesis on simple synthetic polymers of amino acids and continued his education at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, Columbia University and Harvard University.

Like other students at the time, Ephraim Katzir was a member of the Haganah, the underground Jewish defense organization, and participated in the first non-commissioned officers' course given by the underground Haganah. Later, Katzir became deeply involved in the Israel Army's Science Corps, Hemed, founded at the start of the 1948 War of Independence, and for a time commanded it as a lieutenant colonel.

Professor Katzir was one of the founding scientists of the Weizmann Institute of Science in 1949, an institution with which he has been associated throughout his professional career, both before and after serving as President. As founder and head of the Institute's Biophysics Department, his pioneering studies in the study of proteins contributed to the deciphering of the genetic code, the production of synthetic antigens and the clarification of the various steps of immune responses. The understanding of polyamino acid properties led, among other things, to Weizmann scientists' development of Copaxone, a drug used worldwide for the treatment of multiple sclerosis.

Katzir also developed a method for binding enzymes, which speed up numerous chemical processes, to a variety of surfaces and molecules. The method laid the foundations for what is now called enzyme engineering, which plays an important part in the food and pharmaceutical industries. His pioneering work on immobilized enzymes used in oral antibiotics, for which he received the Japan Prize in 1985, has revolutionized a number of industries and branches of medical research.

Along with his scientific research, Professor Katzir was profoundly involved in the social and educational aspects of science. He headed a governmental committee for the formulation of a national scientific policy, trained a generation of younger scientists, translated important material into Hebrew and helped to establish a popular science magazine. He served as Chief Scientist of the Israel Defense Ministry and Chairman of the Society for the Advancement of Science in Israel, the Israel Biochemical Society, the National Council for Research and Development and the Council for the Advancement of Science Education. He headed the National Biotechnology Council and was President of the World ORT Union,  - a network of vocational schools.

Three landmark events "defined" Katzir's Presidency. His term in office began on May 24, 1973 - just over four months prior to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War and exactly a year after the tragic death of his brother, Professor Aharon Katzir, who was murdered in the May 1972 terrorist attack at Ben-Gurion Airport. A third momentous event, this a joyous one - the visit of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in Jerusalem in November 1977 - took place near the end of his term as President.

Katzir placed special emphasis on education and science as a fulcrum to economic prosperity. As a former chief scientist of the IDF (1966-68), Ephraim Katzir made numerous tours of army units and military research facilities, as well as of industrial complexes and educational facilities, including those in development towns. Using his personal standing and the prestige of his office, he galvanized academics to address the danger of assimilation in Diaspora communities by pressing for the establishment of departments of Jewish studies at colleges and universities abroad - deemed the "last chance" to expose Jewish youth in the Diaspora to their heritage and Jewish identity.

In 1966 he accepted the invitation of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to head a committee charged with advising the government on its future activities in science and technology. The result was the appointment, in several government ministries, of Chief Scientists charged with promoting applied research in governmental institutions, institutes of higher education and industry, leading to greater cooperation between the three sectors. It also led to a dramatic increase in government spending on applied research, causing a surge in innovative science-based activities, especially in industry and agriculture.

Throughout his five years in office, President Katzir emphasized science and higher education, but also reached out to numerous individual families in distress and devoted much time to promoting volunteerism as an avenue for narrowing educational and socio-economic gaps. During his term of office, the Presidential Award for Volunteerism was inaugurated - an annual prize granted in recognition of twelve individuals who distinguished themselves in volunteer work.

Ephraim Katzir stepped down from the Presidency in May 1978 to return to scientific research at the Weizmann Institute and was named Institute Professor, a prestigious title awarded by Weizmann faculty and administration to outstanding scientists who made significant and meaningful contributions to science or to the State of Israel. He also devoted himself to the promotion of biotechnological research in Israel and founded the Department of Biotechnology at Tel Aviv University. The creation of this department was a continuation of his previous efforts to establish science-based industries in Israel: he had helped create several companies based on the fruits of scientific research.

In the later years of his scientific career Prof. Katzir turned to new areas of research. In one project, he headed a team of Weizmann scientists that won an international contest for computer modeling of proteins. In another study, he was part of an interdisciplinary Institute team that revealed an important aspect of snake venom's effects on the body.

Katzir authored hundreds of scientific papers and served on the editorial and advisory boards of numerous scientific journals. International scientific symposia were held in Rehovot and Jerusalem to celebrate his 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays.

Prof. Katzir was a member of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities and of numerous other learned bodies in Israel and abroad, including The Royal Institution of Great Britain, The Royal Society of London, the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, the Academie des Sciences in France, the Scientific Academy of Argentine and the World Academy of Art and Science. He was visiting professor at Harvard University, Rockefeller University, University of California at Los Angeles and Battelle Seattle Research Center.

In addition, Katzir was awarded the Rothschild and Israel Prizes in Natural Sciences, the Weizmann Prize, the Linderstrom Land Gold Medal, the Hans Krebs Medal, the Tchernikhovski Prize for scientific translations, the Alpha Omega Achievement Medal and the Engineering Foundation's International Award in Enzyme Engineering. He was the first recipient of the Japan Prize and was appointed to France's Order of Legion of Honor. He received honorary doctorates from more than a dozen institutions of higher learning in Israel and around the world, including Harvard University, Northwestern University, McGill University, University of Oxford and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

The magazine Annual Reviews quoted Katzir thus: "I have had the opportunity to devote much of my life to science. Yet my participation over the years in activities outside science has taught me there is life beyond the laboratory. I have come to understand that if we hope to build a better world, we must be guided by the universal human values that emphasize the kinship of the human race: the sanctity of human life and freedom, peace between nations, honesty and truthfulness, regard for the rights of others, and love of one's fellows."

Katzir died on May 30, 2009, at his home in Rehovot.

Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs