Tikvah Alper, Discoverer of the Prion

By Jaime Seltzer

Tikvah Alper was born to Russian immigrant Jewish parents in South Africa in 1909, the youngest daughter of four. She was incredibly precocious, graduating from Durban Girls High School when she was only fifteen; faculty said she was the most “intellectually distinguished” girl they had ever taught.

Tikvah won a scholarship to study at Capetown University, though her choice to pursue mathematics and physics was nearly unheard-of for girls at the time. In 1929, she earned her M.A. and won a second scholarship, this time to study in Berlin.

It was while studying at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute that she studied nuclear physics under the tutelage of the redoubtable Lise Meitner; however, Alper would only be able to study with her for a year and a half. She published her doctoral thesis on delta rays produced by alpha particles in the Zeitschrift fuer Physik, which won her the Junior Medal of the British Association in 1933, but she did not have time to complete her doctorate before the events of World War II sent her back to South Africa.

Other prion diseases include mad cow disease and kuru, and it was during the outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain in the 1980s that Alper became a household name. Her work on prion diseases proved that it was useless to try and attack the problem with antivirals or antibacterial agents.

Alper knew that her mentor, one of the most skilled nuclear physicists in the world, had been removed from her post because of her Jewish heritage. Meitner herself never believed in human evil, remaining at her post despite her peril; but Meitner’s banishment from Germany had a lasting effect on Tikvah’s political views and her determination to fight prejudice in all its forms.

Back in South Africa, Tikvah married a bacteriologist named Max Sterne, though she kept her last name in part because she had already been published in a well-known scientific journal: a practice of many modern scientists today, but practically unheard-of at the time. Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible for a married woman to obtain an academic or research position in South Africa. Undeterred by her lack of financial and collegial support, Tikvah and Max set up a makeshift lab in the middle of the rambling gardens in their backyard.

When Tikvah and Max’s first son, Jonathan, was born deaf, Alper turned her academic attentions to speech therapy and the science of hearing loss, studying in the United States. She taught classes for instructors of deaf children on her return.

Over the next several years, Tikvah and her husband were to move back and forth from South Africa to Europe and back again, wherever jobs in academia and research could be found. Tikvah was able to secure a position lecturing in physics at Witwatersrand University in South Africa. In 1946, she worked as a research fellow at the Gray Laboratory in Hammersmith Hospital in London and then at Cambridge University, where she combined her and her husband’s disciplines by studying the effect of radiation on living things, including bacteria. She experimented with and improved upon target theory, which stated that, the larger the particle, the more likely it was to be damaged by rogue electrons.

Tikvah Alper

Tikvah Alper and her card in the Women in Science game.

When Tikvah secured a government position at the new National Physics Laboratory in South Africa, she and her husband returned. Tikvah was placed at the head of the Biophysics department there – quite a jump up from being an unpaid lecturer and researcher in Europe! However, Tikvah’s experience in the war had taught her indelible lessons about the price of silence: she became a vocal opponent of apartheid, which did not sit well with her employers. Tikvah was told her passport would be revoked if she continued to make waves at work.

Tikvah left her lucrative position in South Africa and immigrated back to Great Britain and Hammersmith Hospital, this time for good. It was only in 1953 that she became a paid staff member, and in 1963 she was appointed the director of the unit.

By the 1960s, everyone in the world of science knew that living organisms replicated by making copies of nucleic acids. It was Tikvah who first suggested that scrapie, a fatal illness that affects the nervous system of sheep, might be caused by a pathogen that did not copy itself the same way as other pathogens did. That would mean scrapie was neither a virus nor a bacterium.

She was able to demonstrate that this was the case by exposing scrapie to strong ultraviolet light, which would have destroyed the nucleic acids in DNA or RNA. She found that only light of a wavelength that disrupted protein folding actually destroyed the scrapie pathogen. Though this theory was met with skepticism at the time, she was later proved correct: scrapie is now known to be a prion disease, caused by pathogenic proteins that contain no nucleic acids at all, but can cause the misfolding of healthy proteins. Other prion diseases include mad cow disease and kuru, and it was during the outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain in the 1980s that Alper became a household name. Her work on prion diseases proved that it was useless to try and attack the problem with antivirals or antibacterial agents.

Tikvah remained active in the scientific community well into her 80s, and was a famously active and adventurous woman who loved to sail and travel. Her work disrupting the ‘central dogma’ of biology was revolutionary.

Bewley, D. (1995, March 6). OBITUARY: Tikvah Alper. In The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-tikvah-alper-1610123.html
Kim, K. (2007). Radiobiological Research at Compton (1964-1978). In The Social Construction of Disease: From Scrapie to Prion (pp. 50-64). New York, NY: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.
Vogt, A.B. (2009, March 1). Tikvah Alper. In Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Jewish Women’s Archive. Retrieved on October 1, 2015 from http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/alper-tikvah

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