OBITUARY : Tikvah Alper

David Bewley
Monday 06 March 1995 00:02
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Tikvah Alper was one of the few women of her generation to reach the top in her chosen scientific field. She was head of the Medical Research Council Radiopathology Unit at Hammersmith Hospital, London, from 1962 to 1974. She was also an ardent feminist and a skilful educator of deaf children.

Alper's parents were poor Jewish immigrants to South Africa from what was then the Russian Empire. She went to Durban Girls High School and then won a scholarship to the University of Cape Town to read mathematics and physics, a choice unheard of for girls in those days. In 1930, at the age of 20, she went to Berlin to work for a doctorate under Lise Meitner, who later discovered nuclear fission. She was unable to remain long enough to obtain her doctorate, but her paper on delta rays (slow secondary electrons) won the Junior Medal of the British Association in 1933. Alper's political leanings were later reinforced when Meitner was forced to leave the laboratory because she was Jewish and consequently did not receive the Nobel Prize.

On her return to South Africa Alper married in 1932 Max Sterne, who was to become a well-known research worker in veterinary medicine. At that time it was impossible for a married woman to obtain a good scientific post in South Africa so Alper devoted herself to her family. Her oldest son was born profoundly deaf. When she found little educational provision for the deaf in South Africa she went to the United States to train. She then worked as a teacher of the deaf before becoming a lecturer in physics at Witwatersrand University.

After the Second World War she spent a short time in England doing her first (unpaid) research on the biological effects of radiation and then returned to a government scientific post in South Africa. But in 1951 she circulated a petition in the laboratory protesting against the removal of coloured voters from the roll in Cape Province. For this offence she was threatened with the loss of her passport; so at the first opportunity she and her family emigrated to Britain, where she worked for the rest of her life on radiobiology in the Medical Research Council Unit.

In science, as in other areas, Alper was never one to avoid unpopular opinions or crossing swords with the authorities. She insisted on keeping her maiden name on her passport and there was a similar struggle when Buckingham Palace sent a greeting on her diamond wedding.

Alper retired in 1974, but kept up her scientific work. Latterly her main interest was the transmissible agent in scrapie and mad cow disease. She demonstrated that the agent was neither a virus nor a bacterium, a theory greeted with disbelief at the time, but now accepted.

Tikvah Alper, physicist and radiobiologist: born Wynberg, Cape Province 22 January 1909; married 1932 Max Sterne (two sons); died Sarisbury Green, Hampshire 2 February 1995.

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