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Prof. Meir Wilchek still remembers the day, in the 1950s, when he overheard a mother yelling in the street to her young son: “If you don’t go to school, you’ll end up like him!” Wilchek – the "him" referred to – was at that moment disheveled, having risen early to complete his bike paper route before getting to his university classes. He chuckles when he thinks that the boy could have done much worse than becoming a world-class scientist, inventor of methods used today around the globe for protein purification and biotechnical and biomedical applications.
Until he was four years old, Meir had an idyllic existence in the town of Ostrów Mazowiecka, Poland. He and his older sister were raised by their mother, while their father, a rabbi, worked during the week in Warsaw. That all changed in 1939, when the German army entered their town – one of the first to be conquered in Poland, and in all of World War II. Meir fled with his sister and mother to the Russian zone, trying to reach the children's father in Warsaw, but they were caught and sent to Siberia with other stateless refugees. Their father remained the Warsaw ghetto and joined the resistance. After the uprising, he was imprisoned, first in the Kraków-Płaszów camp, and in 1944 he was transferred to a camp in Flossenburg, Germany, where he was executed two weeks before the end of the war in April, 1945.
Wilchek remembers saving his mother’s life twice. The first time, he accidentally landed on her ankle when he jumped off a bench. That injury got her removed from the logging crew that would almost certainly have spelled her death in the Siberian cold, and put her on lighter duties in the camp. The second time, when the family had already made their way farther south, his mother was ill from malnourishment. The young Meir went to beg a bit of milk from some Uzbek farmers, fighting hungry cats to get the milk back to her. In between, there was hunger, cold, sickness and traveling, rootless, by train as the Nazi army pushed into Russian territory. Their mother saved her children’s lives again and again by finding small items in one town to sell in the next, and by cooking and sewing. Sometimes they subsisted on the potato peels – peeled extra-thick – from the meals she prepared for others. Still, she managed to teach Meir and his sister reading, writing and math.
The family made Aliyah to the new State of Israel in 1949, when Meir was 14. They ended up in a ma’abara – a refugee camp – in Rehovot, as they had a relative there. For the first time, Meir found himself in an educational framework: He was placed in sixth grade in a religious elementary/middle school, but he quickly skipped to the upper grades.
There was no religious high school for him to attend in Rehovot, and Meir, who was told at the state high school that he could only wear his kippa during religious classes, decided to start his own high school with help from the teachers in his previous school. Wilchek rounded up 12 students the first year, and the school found them space and arranged classes for them. That religious high school still exists, and in the year 2000, when it celebrated its 50th anniversary, Wilchek was honored by the city of Rehovot.
Excellent students tended to get tracked into army study programs and from there into academic life, but Wilchek, ever mindful of the need to make a living, completed his compulsory service in a regular air force unit and hoped to be accepted into the postal service. It was only when he was not accepted for a postal job that he looked to his fallback plan – studying chemistry.
Having received a scholarship that provided him partial board, Wilchek again found himself a pioneer in his studies – at Bar Ilan University, founded by an American rabbi as a religious Zionist university. He was in the first graduating class at Bar Ilan, receiving a BSc in chemistry and physics. In addition to his paper route, Wilchek found time to head the Bar Ilan student union and serve as deputy head of the national student union, as well as to be a youth aid to MK Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party, who at the time was minister of education. Wilchek met his future wife, Esther, during his studies, and they married right after he graduated.
As Bar Ilan had no graduate studies and the Hebrew University would not accept his degree from the not-yet-accredited Bar Ilan, Wilchek found himself working as a lab assistant under Profs. Abraham Patchornik and Ephraim Katzir in the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Biophysics Department. The two professors encouraged him to continue his studies in another brand-new institute – the Feinberg Graduate School on the Institute campus – where he entered a direct PhD program.
His brainstorm: Use proteins that bind to other molecules to fish them out of solution
Wilchek’s defining moment came during his postdoctoral research in the lab of Prof. Christian Anfinsen (who would go on to receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry), at the National Institutes of Health, in Maryland. Initially, he was given the painstaking task of protein separation – a job that was done in a ceiling-high column and that could take weeks or months. He remembers asking Sara Fuchs – another Weizmann alumnus – how to do it. Once the work became routine, he piled his family into the car for a tour of the United States, but on the way, he made a U-turn and headed back to the lab. He'd had a brainstorm: Use proteins that bind to other molecules to fish them out of solution. When he conducted experiments, he found several that were particularly effective and he developed a separation method that could be accomplished in just a few hours.
The new method, dubbed “affinity chromatography,” was an immediate hit with scientists; one group even reported that they had worked for 25 years to purify a particular protein they could now separate from blood in barely half a day. Affinity purification has been used more recently in the process of developing mRNA vaccines.
Wilchek returned to Israel in 1968 and joined the Weizmann Institute of Science soon after, at the behest of Prof. Katzir. He continued to investigate and develop affinity chromatography, and he also researched the interactions between biological molecules – a field he helped create with new studies investigating how molecules like proteins identify their partners, how their shapes facilitate a neat fit, and how they affect one another once they meet up. Together with his student Ed Bayer (who would become his Institute colleague), he worked on two molecules – a protein called avidin and the vitamin biotin – which bind together so closely they were eventually nicknamed the “strongest biological glue.” Their findings on the avidin-biotin system became the basis of thousands of studies in biology, chemistry and even physics; as well as of applications in numerous fields, from the diagnosis of genetic disorders to biomedicine and cancer treatments.
Prof. Wilchek has received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to science and humanity, including the Wolf Prize (1987), an Israel Prize (1990) and an EMET Prize (2005). He has served in posts at the Institute and outside of it, and has guided numerous students. In addition to Prof. Bayer, former students who are making outstanding contributions to science include Prof. Ronen Alon of the Institute, Prof. Nahum Sonenberg of McGill University in Montreal, Prof. Sarah Spiegel of Virginia Commonwealth University and Prof. Joachim Kohn of Rutgers University in New Jersey.
When asked whether he has ever experienced conflict between his science and his religious beliefs, Wilchek quoted Deuteronomy: “The secret things belong to G-d, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” “That apparent conflict only arises from fear,” he adds.
Meir and Esther have three children – all alumni of the high school their father founded at age 15: Eliezer Wilchek is a successful attorney, Dr. Yael Wilchek Aviad is Head of the Criminology Department at Ariel University and Hagit Wilchek is an educational consultant.