When the Rebbe Intervened to Help a Cancer Researcher

Chabad historian Rabbi Nochum Zajac explores the Rebbe’s unique relationship with cancer researcher Dr. Solomon Ullman.

By Rabbi Nochum Zajac for Anash.org

In last week’s article about Professor Elmer Offenbacher, it was mentioned that the Rebbe asked him to assist Dr. Ullman, who was being persecuted at the university where he engaged in cancer research. Who was this Dr. Ullman, and what was the nature of his relationship with the Rebbe?

Dr. Shlomo (Solomon) Baruch Ullman was born in Gorlitz, Poland, where his father served as a shochet. As a child, he moved with his family to Holland, where he studied botany, biology and chemistry. Soon after receiving his Ph.D. from Hebrew University in Eretz Yisrael, he began working as a researcher in the field of cancer treatment.

In 1950, Dr. Ullman moved to Montreal, Canada, where he began working at McGill University.

The 1952 letter to Dr. Offenbacher is the first record we have relating to the Rebbe’s relationship with Dr. Ullman. Dr. Natan Ofir has graciously shared a copy of the letter and it has been published for the first time in this article series.

28th of Adar, 5712

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dear. Dr. Offenbacher:

You will recall that when you visited with me, mention was made of Dr. S. B. Ullman. It is on his behalf that I am writing to you now.

Dr. Ullman has been specializing in Cancer Research, formerly at the Hebrew University, and since 1950 at the Department of Experimental Surgery of the McGill University at Montreal, at the invitation of the Cancer Society. His accomplishments in this field won him a grant from the Damon Runyan fund in the amount of $10,000. Unfortunately, he has encountered serious opposition by other professors, and even the grant was returned. Dr. Ullman believes that he is being persecuted at McGill by an influential member of the department, and that one of the reasons is Dr. Ullman’s record of outspoken defense of Judaism. 

I am writing to ask you if there is anything that can be done for Dr. Ullman, and would appreciate your suggestions.

Hoping this letter finds you in the best of health, and looking forward to hearing from you soon,

Cordially yours,

[The Rebbe’s signature]

In response to to Rebbe’s letter, Dr. Offenbacher wrote that he consulted with his colleague Dr. Albert Schild, a mathematician who was familiar with Canadian universities. Dr. Schild shared that the administration of McGill was very anti-Semitic. He further explained that as a top medical school, they had a high degree of independence, making it very difficult to change their stance. His advice was to help Dr. Ullman obtain another position elsewhere, and he offered his assistance in this regard. 

The Rebbe responded with thanks to Dr. Offenbacher, and told him that he had forwarded his contact information to Dr. Ullman. Indeed, around the year 1953, Dr. Ullman moved to Toronto where he continued his scientific work. During that time he also worked in Jewish education and wrote a number of books addressing matters of Torah and science.

The next record we have of Dr. Ullman in the Rebbe’s letters appears in a letter from 28 Adar, 5713 about the creation of the universe and the theory of evolution. In this letter the Rebbe refers to an article written by Dr. Ullman and copies from Dr. Ullman’s bibliography of scientific articles criticizing the theory of evolution (Igros Kodesh, vol. 7, p. 137).

Dr. Ullman argued that science functions within the limits of human intellect and contains no absolute truths; Torah is the only entity that contains absolute, unchanging truth. It is with this understanding that he took on widely accepted scientific theories, arguing strongly against mistaken beliefs.

In addition to his written works mentioned above, Dr. Ullman wrote Hebrew textbooks on botany, zoology, anatomy and other scientific subjects for Israeli schools.

The first published letter written directly by the Rebbe to Dr. Ullman is from 21 Shevat, 5715. In total, there are 7 letters from the Rebbe to Dr. Ullman published in Igros Kodesh. In several of them it is apparent that the Rebbe was involved in assisting Dr. Ullman on a number of occasions. 

In a letter from 25 Av, 5717 (Igros Kodesh, vol. 15, p. 351), the Rebbe shares observations on a monograph published by Dr. Ullman which he had asked the Rebbe to review. The study discussed ways to prevent the body from developing immunity to various medications.

The Rebbe’s library possesses a copy of Dr. Ullman’s Chinuch Umada Le’or Hayahadut, with the author’s dedication to the Rebbe, made “with great respect and loyal friendship.”

Another time that the Rebbe intervened on Dr. Ullman’s behalf is detailed in a letter which has been translated from the original English and published in Moreh Ledor Navuch, vol. 2, p. 195. In a postscript to a 5719 (1959) letter to Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the Rebbe took issue with a book review published in the first edition of Tradition journal, on whose editorial committee Rabbi Rackman sat. The review sharply criticized Dr. Ullman’s book Culture and Judaism, characterizing it as pseudo-scientific rhetoric. Ironically, the review was penned by a Dr. Walter Feder, who had been present at the 1951 yechidus with Dr. Offenbacher during which the Rebbe spoke about Dr. Ullman.

The Rebbe wrote to Rabbi Rackman that he personally knows Dr. Ullman as a sincere yerei shamayim, and is aware of the persecution he endured because of his religious beliefs. In very sharp words, Rebbe expressed his shock at the tone of the review, calling it unjustified. The Rebbe warned that the appearance of such extreme reviews would harm the reputation that the new journal was trying to build.

Dr. Ullman responded to the criticism leveled against his book in the following issue of Tradition. He continued his work until his passing in 1972.

***

I am grateful to Rabbi Shmuel Super for his assistance in the preparation of this article, and to Rabbi Dr. Natan Ophir and JEM for making this series possible.

Editor’s note: We invite you to read Rabbi Zajac’s full article on the Rebbe’s relationship with Dr. Offenbacher and Dr. Ullman, complete with sources. We thank Rabbi Zajac for sharing his extensive research with Anash.org for the benefit of our readers. Stay tuned for future articles on the Rebbe’s fascinating interactions with members of this unique association.

Readers who can shed additional light the content of this article are encouraged to do so in the comments, or by emailing N.Ahavaschesed@gmail.com.

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