Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Elizaveta Karamihailova

A fusion of talents

Name: Elizaveta Karamihailova
Nationality: Bulgarian
Lived: 1897-1968
Fields: Experimental nuclear physics and radioactivity
Claim to fame: Pioneer of experimental nuclear physics in Bulgaria

Bulgaria has one woman to thank for its entry into the exclusive experimental nuclear physics club. Elizaveta Karamihailova (1897-1968) was a member of the core group of the pioneering generation of women nuclear scientists – which included Marie Curie and Lise Meitner – and faced similar obstacles and challenges.

The pursuit of learning

Elizaveta Karamihailova was born in Vienna to a Bulgarian father and a British mother, both of whom were studying in the Austrian capital at the time – her father, Ivan, was pursuing medicine, while her mother, Mary, was studying music. Elizaveta spent most of her childhood in Vienna, until the family moved to the Bulgarian capital Sofia in 1909, where her father was eventually to become one of the country’s best-known surgeons. He organised the construction of the city’s Red Cross hospital and became its unpaid director. With a musician for a mother and a famous artist for an aunt, Elizaveta grew up in an environment that was both artistic and scientific.
In 1917, Elizaveta moved back to Vienna where she started her university life. From then on, her career was to take her backwards and forwards between Austria and Bulgaria, as well as to England, where she conducted research at the top nuclear institutes in these countries.

In the red

Despite her formidable intellect and scientific stature, Elizaveta was an unassuming and friendly person who fraternised with her students and was respected and loved by them. She disliked intensely the political currents sweeping across her country during the Second World War. “[Elizaveta] was violently anti-communist, had a horror of gunfi re, and used to come out in spots about every three weeks after her experiments,” recalled Mary Cartwright, a fellow scientist at Cambridge.
This political aversion was to cost her dearly following the Soviet invasion of Bulgaria in 1944. The Communist party undertook a purge of the entire educational system to weed out “fascist” sympathisers. Elizaveta was not removed but her name appeared on the extended list of “unreliable scientists”. Numerous further attempts to sideline her were made during her life and the ban on her travelling abroad made her unable to interact and collaborate with fellow scientists. Elizaveta’s fears of the effects of radiation were well-founded and she, like many of her contemporaries, died of cancer in 1968.

Bulgarian pioneer

Elizaveta Karamihailova’s path to becoming a leading nuclear physicist began at the University of Vienna in 1917. Her thesis on “electric figures on different materials” earned her a PhD in 1920. She conducted research in radio-luminescence at the Radium Institute in Vienna.
In 1923, she returned to Bulgaria where she worked as a ‘guest fellow’ at Sofia University because there were no tenured positions available. There, she started her research in a small attic at the University’s Physics Institute. However, the lack of facilities and her inability to advance prompted her return to Vienna. As Elizaveta was not Austrian, she could not be taken on as a research assistant and worked on a temporary contract. When her position was terminated in 1933, she was almost forced to abandon her research but was able to support herself through private tuition while she continued her lab work unpaid.
In 1935, after more than a decade without tenure, Elizaveta’s talents and contribution finally gained recognition. She was awarded a Yarrow Scientific Research Fellowship – set up to enable gifted women  scientists to carry out research – at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, one of the world’s leading nuclear research institutes at the time.

One-woman show

Elizaveta’s search for tenure fi nally bore fruit and, in 1939, she returned to Bulgaria to take up a position as associate professor in atomic physics at Sofia University. Unfortunately, her efforts to set up her department from scratch coincided with the outbreak of World War II. This led her to donate her own equipment to the university and many instruments had to be hand-built, while her office was transformed into a makeshift lab.
After the war, a separate chair in atomic physics was created and Elizaveta was its first occupant. In the early 1950s, several attempts were made to strip her of her position. Official documents from that period describe her as an “enemy of the regime”. Fortunately, two physicists, Georgi Nadjakov and Hristo Hristov, defended her with the respective authorities. As a result, she kept her position but was forced to move to the Institute of Physics at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. This suspicion cast a shadow over her until her death.

Scientific achievements

Elizaveta Karamihailova was a pioneer of experimental nuclear physics and the study of radioactivity in Bulgaria, as well as the first woman to become a faculty member at Sofia University. Alongside such greats as Marie Curie, Irène Joliot-Curie and Lise Meitner, she was one of the network of extraordinary female nuclear scientists who emerged in Europe at this time.
These trailblazing women gave one another mutual support and often maintained personal contacts until the very end of their lives – the kind of scientific and moral support which Elizaveta was denied following the Communist takeover.