06 April 2008

A nibble of prevention: Dr. Paul Talalay

While I have previously featured members of the Dardashti clan at Tracing the Tribe, it's time now for another tale of the Talalay, focusing on Johns Hopkins Medical School researcher Dr. Paul Talalay, the energizer bunny of research at 85.

I was delighted to read this great article, "A Nibble of Prevention," on our cousin Paul and his accomplishments in the April 2008 issue of Johns Hopkins University magazine. He focuses on discoveries of foodborne substances that can help sufferers of cancer and other conditions. His discoveries may allow us to pursue our genealogy research in a healthier state.

The New York Times' put him on the front page, while Popular Mechanics listed his discovery as one of the top 100 scientific discoveries of the 20th century, which encouraged the growing trend that people can improve their health by eating the right foods.

These days, most of the stories Talalay unfolds involve 30 years of chemoprotection research — a hunt for the substances, mostly from plants, that can boost the human body's ability to stave off disease — and how they dovetail with a new laboratory and center that will be built to expand the search. Currently dubbed the Chemoprotection Center (its final moniker likely will carry the name of a benefactor or two), the lab will be dedicated this month as part of the new Science and Technology Park at the medical campus. Talalay hopes it will create a flurry of new discoveries of foodborne substances that can aid people suffering from any of a wide number of conditions beyond cancers, including Alzheimer's disease and cardiac problems.

Paul's late nephew Victor - whom we lost last year - and I spent years collaborating on the family history and sharing research. I couldn't have done it without his assistance. We long joked that a Talalay family reunion must feature green foam rubber broccoli heads as centerpieces. Why foam rubber? Google "The Talalay Process" to learn more about the family's involvement in that creation.

The story includes information on a topical broccoli extract that protects skin cells from sun damage and on his 15 milliseconds of screen fame as he portrayed a raincoat-clad dirty old man exiting an X-rated theater in the John Waters' movie "Polyester." His students loved it.

In case you think the name sounds familiar, one of his daughters - Rachel Talalay - is in the film business ("Tank Girl," "Freddy's Dead" and other gems). She got her industry start working with Baltimore's John Waters and went on from there.

Paul Talalay's research showed why broccoli is good for us. Now, a new center at Johns Hopkins is looking for more foods that could stave off cancer and other diseases.

It's morning in the office beside Paul Talalay's lab. As the coffee brews and his staff mills in with questions and out with answers, the man who turned acrid, dark-green crowns that resemble brains gone horribly wrong into something desirable explains the major misgiving surrounding an illustrious, six-decade-long career in research.

"My greatest fear is that on my tombstone, they'll say, 'He made broccoli famous,'" he says.

Read the entire article and learn why we should all be eating broccoli sprouts.

The Talalay-Tollin clan are descendants of Rabbi Leib ben harav Mikhl Talalay of Mogilev and nearby Vorotinschtina (the agricultural colony) in Belarus, but with a history of Sephardic origin (and recently discovered 14th century archival documents!).

Early branches were in Bobruisk, Gorkiy, Novgorod Severskiy (Chernigov gubernia, Ukraine) and elsewhere, with others in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The family spread out from the Crimea to Siberia as well as Baku, Chaussy, Novgorod Severskiy, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Sochi, Novosibirsk, Akademgorod, Kazakhstan and elsewhere).

Paul's branch moved from Mogilev to Moscow to Berlin to London and then to Canada and the US.

Among its members were rabbis, religious court judges, Talmudic scholars, secular artisans and craftsmen who became more contemporary musicians, architects, historians, medical doctors, forensic pyschologists, scientists in many fields (including the Soviet space program), archaelogists, writers, journalists and even a Gen-blogger.

Some branches studied at the Mogilev Classic School and then left Mogilev and Vorotinschtina for higher education in St. Petersburg and Moscow, while others began to immigrate to Europe and North America.

The earliest known US immigrant was Mendl Talalay (Max Tollin) in 1898, who settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. Other early branches settled in Newark, Boston and Philadelphia (including several Talalay brothers who elusively changed their name to that of their sister's husband - Feinstein - and decided to disappear among all those other Feinsteins).

Branch descendants live all over - Israel, Italy, the UK and Australia - with additional more recently arrived branches in North America; some remain in the FSU. Some of the newer arrivals live in Chicago, and I'm hoping to meet them when I attend this August's international Jewish genealogy conference.

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