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.

In the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies, Aus­tralian-Eng­lish poly­math Joseph Jacobs laid the frame­work for mod­ern schol­ar­ship about all things Jew­ish, includ­ing Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion genet­ics. Born in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, Jacobs went to Eng­land in 1872, intent on study­ing law at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty. Instead, he became inter­est­ed in lit­er­a­ture and anthro­pol­o­gy, as well as math­e­mat­ics, his­to­ry and philosophy.

Upon grad­u­at­ing in 1876, he went to Lon­don to become a writer. While there, his pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment was trans­formed by two books. The first was George Eliots nov­el Daniel Deron­da. Fol­low­ing pub­li­ca­tion, Eliot was derid­ed by the Eng­lish crit­ics for turn­ing an Eng­lish gen­tle­man into a Jew. She knew of the risk that she ran writ­ing this nov­el, because she told Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe that she want­ed, to rouse the imag­i­na­tion of [Eng­lish] men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fel­low men who dif­fer from them in cus­toms and beliefs.” Daniel’s self-dis­cov­ery was life-chang­ing not only for the char­ac­ter in the nov­el, but also for Jacobs. He wrote, It is dif­fi­cult for those who have not lived through it to under­stand the influ­ence that George Elliot had upon those of us who came to our intel­lec­tu­al major­i­ty in the Sev­en­ties. George Elliot’s nov­els were regard­ed by us not so much as nov­els, but rather as appli­ca­tions of Dar­win­ism to life and art.”

The sec­ond trans­for­ma­tive book was Fran­cis Galton’s Hered­i­tary Genius, a trea­tise in which the for­mu­la­tor of the con­cept of Nature ver­sus Nur­ture observed that supe­ri­or intel­li­gence tend­ed to be trans­mit­ted with­in fam­i­lies. Fran­cis Gal­ton, him­self a famous poly­math, was Charles Darwin’s cousin and Joseph Jacobs’ Dar­win­ian men­tor. Gal­ton taught Jacobs that all human attrib­ut­es could be mea­sured – heads, heights, intel­li­gence. Fol­low­ing this lead, Jacobs assessed Jew­ish accom­plish­ment and wrote Jew­ish Genius. He applied Galton’s meth­ods to mea­sur­ing Jews and wrote Jew­ish Sta­tis­tics: Social, Vital and Anthro­po­met­ric. Jacobs con­clud­ed that the low his­tor­i­cal rates of inter­mar­riage and pros­e­lytism and the phys­i­cal resem­blance among Jews favored the idea of a Jew­ish race. In his arti­cle in the Jew­ish Ency­clo­pe­dia on Anthro­pol­o­gy’, he wrote, The remark­able uni­ty of resem­blance among Jews, even in dif­fer­ent climes, seems to imply a com­mon descent.” When Mendel’s laws were redis­cov­ered in 1901, Jacobs sug­gest­ed that there was a genet­ic basis to Jewishness.

In 1906, Jacobs came to New York to edit the Jew­ish Ency­clo­pe­dia, the major source of Jew­ish infor­ma­tion at the turn of the last cen­tu­ry. Jacobs felt that a study of Jew­ish his­to­ry, when com­bined with an analy­sis of Jew­ish racial char­ac­ter­is­tics, would pro­vide a pow­er­ful arse­nal in the bat­tle against anti-Semi­tism. He regard­ed it as his duty to fight anti-Semi­tes of his day by point­ing out Jew­ish con­tri­bu­tions to civilization.

Dr. Har­ry Ostr­er is the author of Lega­cy: A Genet­ic His­to­ry of the Jew­ish Peo­ple. He is a med­ical geneti­cist who inves­ti­gates the genet­ic basis of com­mon and rare dis­or­ders. He is also known for his study, writ­ings, and lec­tures about the ori­gins of the Jew­ish peo­ple. He is a pro­fes­sor of Pathol­o­gy and Genet­ics at Albert Ein­stein Col­lege of Med­i­cine of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty and Direc­tor of Genet­ic and Genom­ic Test­ing at Mon­te­fiore Med­ical Center. 

Har­ry Ostr­er, M.D., is the author of Lega­cy: A Genet­ic His­to­ry of the Jew­ish Peo­ple. Dr. Ostreris pro­fes­sor of pathol­o­gy and genet­ics at Albert Ein­stein Col­lege of Med­i­cine and direc­tor of genet­ic and genom­ic test­ing at Mon­te­fiore Med­ical Cen­ter. He pre­vi­ous­ly served as direc­tor of human genet­ics at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Medicine.

Joseph Jacobs: Fight­ing Anti-Semi­tism, Genet­i­cal­ly

Arthur Mourant: It’s All In the Blood