Dr. Salome Gluecksohn Waelsch earned her doctorate in biology for her work on the embryological limb development of aquatic salamanders at the University of Freiberg in 1932.
Working as a research assistant in cell biology at the University of Berlin she and her husband, also a scientist, were forced to flee to the United States with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. Already having a reputation as a world-class embryologist she was invited to work at a genetics lab at Columbia University. This position was without pay– it was set forth as a trade: she would share her knowledge of embryo development and she would get to learn about genetics.
By studying mutations in a family of mouse genes–called the t-complex–which is responsible for encoding for tails and spinal development she was able to trace the genetic cause of mutation from the embryo to the phenotypic effect on the mature individual. This work was a major breakthrough in 1938 and laid the groundwork for all future advances in developmental genetics. This research proved vital to improving the understanding of birth defects and the cause of mistakes in the development process that results in defects.
Spending over 15 years at Columbia, it became clear that while the school was comfortable with using her time and talents it wasn’t comfortable with making her an actual member of the faculty. She left the school in 1953 to accept a professorship in anatomy as one of the first faculty members of the newly opened Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
She rose quickly through the ranks and was promoted to full professor five years later and was the chair of the molecular genetics division from 1963 to 1976. Although she retired with the title of professor emeritus in 1978 she continued to complete research, publish papers, speak at conferences, and maintain her mouse colony at the school into her 90s.
Waelsch passed away in 2007 just one month after her 100th birthday and was memorialized as the founder of mammalian developmental genetics.
Written by Angela Goad