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May 17: The Jew and the Hamster

May 16, 2015

tumblr_lrnx1ipmT71qzdi59o1_r1_500Israeli parasitologist Saul Adler, who made important contributions to research about several diseases, including malaria, was born in Russia on this date in 1895. Among his most enduring contributions was an unintended one: the spread of Syrian golden hamsters worldwide as pets. Unable to obtain Chinese hamsters for his research into leishmaniasis, an awful parasitic disease, Adler went after the Syrian breed (the Arabic word translates into “Mr. Saddlebags,” perhaps because of the hamster’s capacity to store food in its cheeks) through Israel Aharoni, a linguist and zoologist. A nest of a mother and eleven pups was dug up from a cultivated field in Syria, but the disturbed mother began to kill her young before Aharoni’s workers killed her. The surviving pups were hand-raised by Aharoni, and three survived. They were bred and domesticated. Adler shared his stock with scientists in England, India, and the U.S., but the hamsters proved to be less than ideal as research animals. Instead, they became a hugely popular pet.

“The babies, fed with an eye-dropper, did well for a while, maybe too well. One night, when the mood around the lab had grown hopeful, five hamsters grew bold, chewed their way out of their wooden cage and were never found. Hein Ben-Menachen, Aharoni’s colleague who was caring for the hamsters, was overwhelmed by the incident. In Aharoni’s words, he was ‘aghast... smitten, shaken to the depths...’ ” —