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August 26: Lina Stern, Outliving Stalin

Lawrence Bush
August 25, 2016

Lina Stern, an outstanding medical biochemist who emigrated to the USSR for ideological reasons in 1925, served as a director of the Institute of Physiology of the USSR Academy of Sciences for nearly twenty years, and won the Stalin Prize in 1943, was born in today’s Latvia on this date in 1878. Stern did pioneering work on the blood-brain barrier as a protective element for the central nervous system. She was fluent in French, German, English, Italian, and Russian (probably in Yiddish, too), and published hundreds of scientific papers. Stern was the first woman professor at the University of Geneva and the first woman admitted to the USSR Academy of Sciences. Yet she would end up the sole survivor out of fifteen Jewish cultural leaders who served on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and were arrested between 1948 and 1952 and executed by Stalin on August 12, 1952 (the “Night of the Murdered Poets”). Fortunately, Stern’s death sentence was changed to a prison term and exile, and Stalin’s death in 1953 brought about her return to Moscow, where she headed the Department of Physiology at Biophysics Institute from 1954 until her death at 1968.

“Although sympathetic towards the revolutionary movement in general, she was wholly immersed in scientific work. However, the imperialist war and its consequences made her ponder the issue: they sparked a protest against the existing capitalist system and, quite naturally, increased her sympathies with the revolutionary movement in Russia” --Nora Andreevna Grigorian, Jewish Women’s Archive

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.