Author: By Ksenia DYADKOVA, scientific editor of the journal Nauchnaya Kniga
A new book is off the press at Nauka Publishers: Iosif Abramovich Rapoport - Scientist, Soldier, Citizen. Essays, Reminiscences, Materials (M., 2001, 335 pp.). It commemorates the author of a major discovery of the 20th century, the phenomenon of chemical mutagenesis, on the occasion of his 90th birth anniversary. A valorous defender of our Motherland during the Great Patriotic War of 1941 -1945 against Nazi Germany, Iosif Rapoport also showed great courage in proceeding against Trofim Lysenko, an academician who cracked down on genetic research in this country. He who dared to oppose this Stalinist ideologist in biology had to face the music. Dismissal at best (that's what happened to Rapoport).
"... There can be no doubt that I. A. Rapoport, completing a postgraduate course at the Institute of Experimental Biology (IEB) this winter, is an outstanding young research scientist; and that in his background and abilities he is much above the average level of graduate students." This testimonial of the year 1938 comes from the director of the Institute, Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences Nikolai Koltsov, a man who advanced a hypothesis on the molecular structure of the template reproduction of chromosomes (confirmed subsequently) and who first conceptualized their structural design.
Iosif Rapoport was a standout indeed. Why?
First, he was quite a linguist-was fluent or could read in several European languages. This was of much help in his work-he could keep abreast of publications in the foreign literature. Second, Rapoport had great capacity for work and thus could carry out more experiments than other post-graduates.
Two research scientists, Mikhail Lobashev and Vladimir Sakharov,
undertook a study of chemical mutagens* at Dr. Koltsov's suggestion- they carried out research independently. Dr. Sakharov and his pupils conducted several experiments in the 1930s and achieved a positive result when using a 10 percent solution of iodine. And yet in his final article published in 1938 Dr. Sakharov said, "We have no chemical factor or specific method at out disposal to solve any of the problems confronting us." Eight years later, in 1946, the British geneticist A. Auerbach and J. Robeson published an article in Nature on the discovery of a potent chemical mutagen (yperite). However, they made no further headway in isolating the desired compounds- they could not establish the required regularity for doing that.
But Iosif Rapoport did find this regularity. Back in the pre-war years, working under N. Koltsov, he identified several potent chemical mutagens, but failed to publish the results-there came June 1941, the outbreak of the war.
Back from the front-line service, Iosif Rapoport got down to work at the Institute of Cytology, Histology and Embryology of the USSR Academy of Sciences (former Institute of Experimental Biology) and obtained remarkable results by discovering strong chemical mutagens and supermutagens from the group of nitrocompounds with a mutation frequency 100 fold and more as high as in the case of spontaneous mutation frequency. The journal Doklady Akademii nauk carried his article, "Carbonyl Compounds and the Chemical Mechanism of Mutations". Yet the matter was left off at that: in August 1948 there came the notorious session of the Agricultural Academy and the crack-down on genetics as science in the Soviet Union.
Iosif Rapoport was sacked and expelled from the Communist Party's ranks. He had to take a job at a geological department of the USSR Ministry for the Oil and Gas Industry. Years later, in 1957, the disgraced scientist could get a better job at Academician Nikolai Semyonov's, at the Institute of Chemical Physics (USSR Academy of Sciences). No matter what, Iosif Rapoport resumed his research.
He started using chemical mutagens in the selection of farm crops with the aim of improving their use-
* Chemical substances (ethylamine, colchicines and others) causing steady changes of hereditary structures responsible for the storage of genetic information and its passage from ancestor to offspring. - Ed.
ful characteristics, such as productivity, resistance to disease, pests, frosts and so on. He worked on new and on old strains alike. As of the early 1960s, Iosif Rapoport would arrange annual conferences on chemical mutagenesis-at the research institute where he was working. These meetings became a unique school on genetics and selection for budding specialists coming to attend from all parts of the Union. Our geneticist took part in discussions, presented reports and came up with comments on other people's communications. He did his upmost for those who needed his assistance-helped to get mutagens to treat seed with, visited research bodies who were making best progress in this field.
Dr. Rapoport was a multidimensional personality, a man of versatile parts. Apart from the work on farm crops, he looked into the possibility of using chemical mutagens in medicine (in antitumor medication), in nature protection (biological purification of polluted water), in forestry and in other areas.
Unfortunately the talented scientist was in for more travails and vicissitudes of fortune. Treachery, too. In 1989 the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences passed a decision: relieve scientists above a definite age limit of top managerial jobs at research institutions. Iosif Rapoport could have continued as head of the Chemical Genetics Department he founded had no one taken part in a competition for this post. All geneticists declined to suggest their candidatures. All but three..., the pupils of Rapoport himself.
For his services in battle Iosif Rapoport was awarded with two Red Banner Orders, a Suvorov Order Third Class, an Order of the Patriotic War Second Class, a US Legion of Merit, a Red Star Order of Hungary and many medals. On three occasions he was recommended for the top national award, the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
Iosif Rapoport volunteered for combat duty and left for the battle-fronts on June 27, 1941. Upon an induction stint, he was sent as commissioned officer to the Crimea front where, in November 1941, he received a bad injury. But in January 1942 the young officer was in the ranks again and saw service on the forward edge of the Caucasian front. From December 1942 to July 1943 Rapoport upgraded his combat skills at an army officers' course at the Frunze Academy in Moscow. In those months he succeeded in defending his doctoral dissertation. In the summer of 1943 Captain Rapoport received two invitations, each making him exempt from active duty-one was to join the staff of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and the other, stay on as instructor at the Frunze Academy. Yet he declined both and returned to the Field Forces engaged in offensive operations west of Voronezh. Afterwards he took part in forcing the Dnieper and in the liberation of Moldavia.
General N. Biryukov, commander of the corps where our captain saw service at the time, recalled: "Rapoport just came to work with the operations department of the corps headquarters, and he worked fine! Employed before the war at the Academy of Sciences, this young man had a command of several foreign languages, and he was a godsend to us as we began our campaign abroad. But the officer insisted that he take part in action on the forward edge, and I could not say no. Rapoport took command of a battalion, and he showed his best side. Brave, aggressive and quick-witted, he was a crackerjack everywhere."
Meanwhile our forces crossed into Hungary. Captain Rapoport's unit took part in piercing the Queen Margaret line near Lake Balaton- an operation entered in history books on World War II. General Biryukov recalls: "Soon after these battles he was gravely wounded and lost an eye. On New Year's eve I asked Captain Nikitin to go to the hospital and present him a gift on behalf of our comrades. Next day both showed up at our command post: 'Comrade general, Captain Rapoport is here for further service in the corps under your command!'-'You mean... you ran away from hospital?' 'Yes, sir, I'll be in for convalescence in the medical battalion...' Up until the war's end Rapoport fought in our corps, always on the forward edge, face to face with the enemy."
His wife, O. Stroyeva, received many letters from men serving in the same regiment. All spoke of Captain Rapoport's valor, decency and intelligence. It was quite a pleasure to serve side by side with a well-educated and clever person like that. "I, a war veteran, hold dear the memory of what is associated with the name of our legendary battalion commander who showed heroism in fighting Hitler fascism" (K. Melnikov). "Not only could he fulfill a combat mission as capable commander, he could spare men's lives as well" (V. Pyasetsky). "A very modest and kind man he was showing a good deal of tact in dealing with people. That was in his makeup, he would never swim with the tide... Intolerant of injustice or irresponsibility-in such cases he proceeded boldly and decisively" (V. Goryunov).
These lines are eloquent enough about Iosif Rapoport as a person and soldier, one who showed his paces in crushing fascism.
The ill-famed session of the Agricultural Academy came like a bolt from the blue, Iosif Rapoport took the floor. It was a civic feat, the voice of one crying in the howling wilderness of jeers and sneers from the hostile audience. Despite the heavy odds, Rapoport took up the cudgels for genetics even well aware that Trofim Lysenko was in the good graces of Stalin himself. Only a few could have the guts to speak up. But we will not be too hard on those who could or would not.
Genetics was killed as a science. The Institute of Cytology, Histology and Embryonology, and the A. N. Severtsev Institute of Evolutionary Morphology were torn into shreds. Hundreds of researchers were fired, Iosif Rapoport too. He stayed overboard, weaned from his lifework, for nearly ten years, up to 1957. Some of those dismissed "recanted" and applied for reinstatement within the system of the USSR Academy of Sciences. But Rapoport would not eat humble pie, he stuck to his guns, even though he was taking chances on another count, that is because of his Jewish descent, which was bad enough if we recall the officially "espoused" policy of anti- Semitism.
A man of great courage and integrity, Iosif Rapoport would never go back on his principles. Soon after Stalin's death, on June 5, 1953, the disgraced geneticist wrote an open letter to Literaturnaya gazeta with a scathing critique of those crusading against genetics and against Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. Feeling that his letter would never see print*, he sent two messages-to Prime Minister Georgi Malenkov and to Nikita Khrushchev, CPSU Central Committee Secretary. All in vain. Khrushchev did not agree to receive him. True, he had A. Rumyantsev, in charge of the Science Department of the CPSU Central Committee, to meet the author of the letters. After this meeting, a commission on genetics was set up, it was to look into the situation in this field.
Iosif Rapoport showed his high-principled stand on yet another occasion. Early in the 1960s I. Rapoport and S. Auerbach were to be nominated for a Nobel Prize for the discovery of chemical mutagens. The Soviet government made its support for Rapoport's candidacy conditional on his reinstatement within the Communist Party's ranks. But the scientist refused to apply.
It was only many years afterwards that Rapoport the geneticist was given his due. In 1975 Iosif Rapoport received an Order of the Red Banner of Labor; in 1979 he was elected corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and in October 1990 the government conferred on him the title of Hero of Socialist Labor (with an Order of Lenin that belonged to this title). On December 26, 1990, the veteran geneticist was run down by a truck in a Moscow street; five days later, he died...
BY WAY OF AFTERWORD
Now, something about the commemorative book itself. Why did it come to be? Iosif Rapoport's bibliography and selected works have been published after all, posthumously. Well enough? No, not at all. It's a shame but the name of the author of one of the breakthrough discoveries made in biology during the 20th century is known only to a few in this country, biologists for the most part. As to this very book, it appeared in a print not large enough to cater to the interests of broad readership-in Central Asia, Transcaucasia, the Baltic area, India, Vietnam and other parts where Rapoport happened to work. People remember this remarkable man and wish to learn more about him.
Our book is based on documentary evidence and materials recovered from the archives. First and foremost, it is based on reminiscences contributed by men and women who knew Rapoport in person. His kith and kin, colleagues, comrades-in- arms, science chiefs, pupils... Some of these documents have never seen print. This is the first ever attempt to draw Rapoport's authentic image, to depict him the way he was. Since this book draws on copious material, there may be overlapping areas now and then. This is pardonable, a good reader ought to know. Events, thoughts, life experiences flock in droves. Whatever belonged to the life lived by this dedicated man.
* First published in Literaturnaya gazeta on August 26, 1998. -Ed.