Elizabeth Roboz-Einstein (1904-1995) was a pioneer in the field of neurochemistry who identified a key component of the coating called myelin that insulates nerves. Yes, she was also the wife of Albert Einstein’s first son, Hans, but she didn’t escape World War II and dedicate her life to research in order to be known as a wife. The first thing you see when you Google her is still that she’s Hans’ wife, but at least now you can also see her (English) Wikipedia article (she had one in German).
Elizabeth Roboz-Einstein was born in Hungary in 1904. Her father died when she was a child, leaving her mother to raise six children on her own. Elizabeth was an excellent student but the Hungarian parliament restricted the number of Jewish students who could be accepted to the University of Budapest, so after graduating from high school she instead enrolled at the University of Vienna, where she earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry summa cum laude, in 1928, then returned to Hungary and had to repeat her examinations before the University of Budapest would confirm her degree.
She fled antisemitism in 1940, immigrating to the United States through an agricultural specialist's visa and finding work as a plant scientist at a potato company. She joined the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as a research assistant in 1942 and studied Aloe vera. She was promoted to research associate, but Caltech did not appoint female professors, so she took a position as associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wyoming in 1945. She later taught at Stanford and Georgetown before settling down in the University of California system (first at the San Francisco campus, then Berkeley).
Despite her early start as a plant scientist, she found herself drawn to neuroscience after studying neurochemistry to teach her students. She began investigating the makeup of nervous system tissue and how its various components change through the course of development and in the context of disease. She was especially interested in myelin, a fatty sheath that wraps around nerves and provides insulation that helps them transmit electrical pulses. She isolated and purified one of its central components, myelin basic protein (MBP), which helps keep the sheath together, and investigated its potential role in the neurodegenerative disease multiple sclerosis (MS), which is characterized by the breakdown of myelin.
In addition to investigating diseases of the nervous system, she performed research to try to better understand normal nervous system development, including how thyroid hormones influence the formation of the myelin coating.
Roboz died January 9, 1995. UC Berkeley offers an Elizabeth Roboz Einstein Fellowship for doctoral students researching developmental neuroscience in her honor. If you want to help honor Elizabeth and other female scientists, please consider writing Wikipedia articles about them!
Photo: Smithsonian Institution