Tikvah Alper

Tikvah Alper (1909 – 1995) was a renowned radiobiologist and physicist whose work on identifying the infection agent in Scrapie revolutionized scientific understanding of diseases like mad cow disease and kuru.

She was born in 1909 in South Africa and graduated with a distinction in physics from the University of Cape Town in 1929. She was mentored by Lise Meitner as a doctoral student in Berlin from 1930 to 1932 where she published an award-winning paper on delta rays produced by alpha particles.

In addition to her life as a mother and homemaker, she was a physics lecturer at Witwatersrand University and researched in Britain on the irradiation of bacteriophage. She became head of the Biophysics Section in South Africa’s National Physics Laboratory; however, she was forced out of this position in 1951 due to her opposition to apartheid. Afterward, she moved to London with her family and worked her way up to director of Hammersmith Hospital’s MRC Experimental Radiopathology Research Unit in 1962.

Alper found that radiation did not kill the infective agent in Scrapie, an infectious brain disease found in sheep. Instead, by irradiating scrapie samples with different wavelengths of UV light, Alper was able to prove the infective agent was able to replicate despite its lack of nucleic acid. This work became extremely important during Britain’s Mad cow disease outbreak in the 1990s.