Iranian Jews mourn passing of scientific giant Dr. Iraj Lalezari

He was one of the few Jews ever to be honored in Iran prior to the 1979 revolution and won numerous national an international awards for his research.

Iranian Jewish scientist Dr. Iraj Lalezari. Credit: Courtesy.
Iranian Jewish scientist Dr. Iraj Lalezari. Credit: Courtesy.
Karmel Melamed
Karmel Melamed

Iranian Jews in the United States are mourning the passing of world-renowned scientist Dr. Iraj Lalezari, among the few Jews to ever receive national honors in Iran prior to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Lalezari, 89, died on July 31 in Boulder, Colo.

He was praised by community members for more than six decades of continuous research and achievements in various aspects of organic chemistry and pharmacology in both Iran and the United States.

“Professor Iraj Lalezari was the pride of the Iranian Jewish community before the 1979 revolution,” said Susan Azizzadeh, president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in Los Angeles. “He was a scientist whom even the Iranian royalty were proud to meet and honor, just as he was proud of his country in an age of modernity and rapid development under their leadership.”

According to a biography released by his family, Lalezari completed his higher education at the University of Tehran and University of Paris in the early 1950s. He eventually became chairman and dean of Tehran University’s College of Pharmacy, as well as chairman of the university’s chemistry department. He was perhaps best known for his research in the discovery of hemoglobin A1C, a test used worldwide for the diagnosis of diabetes, and for inventing various fluoride and selenium compounds that revolutionized both medicine and pharmacology.

In 1954, Lalezari was awarded the prestigious Lavoisier Medal by the French Chemical Society (Société Chimique de France) for his scientific work, and received Iran’s highest national awards from both the late shah and the empress of Iran during the 1960s and ’70s for his medical research.

For Iranian Jewish leaders in Los Angeles, Lalezari was a tremendous source of pride because he was one of the few Jews to have achieved national respect in a country which for centuries had persecuted and rejected Jews.

“Professor Lalezari attained the second rank at the Iranian Royal Academy of Sciences in 1976 and was the recipient of many awards, authored innumerable scientific papers and was a holder of numerous patents—the community of Iranian Jews joins the Lalezari family in mourning this great loss,” said Sam Kermanian, an adviser to the IAJF.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and head of the Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, a group based in Los Angeles, said Lalezari and other major Jewish scientists in Iran after the Iranian Revolution became prime targets for persecution by the new regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini because of their support for Israel.

“It took generations of Jewish doctors and pharmacologists and half a century of developing scientific institutions by modernist Iranian leaders to produce a scientist such as Dr. Iraj Lalezari, yet it took one burst of fanatic fervor to deny a country that whole legacy,” said Nikbakht.

According to Nikbakht, Iranian state-run newspapers published articles against Lalezari and other prominent Jewish scientists, declaring them Zionists and justifying purging them from the country’s universities. In a televised 1979 speech, Khomeini openly pushed Jews and other religious minorities working in academia to leave the country in order to make way for “new doctors produced in seven or eight months from among the clerical students of the Islamic seminaries.”

Fearing persecution, Lalezari fled Iran in 1979 and immigrated to New York. He continued his scientific research at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and was also extensively involved in Iranian Jewish community activities in New York. In 1980, he joined an Iranian Jewish delegation headed by Moussa Kermanian for a meeting with Carter administration officials at the White House. The meeting subsequently resulted in the admission of hundreds of thousands of Iranian refugees into the United States.

“Professor Lalezari was instrumental in helping the new Iranian immigrants to New York after the 1979 revolution,” said Shahram Yaghoubzadeh, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York. “He was a source of pride for all Iranians regardless of their religion—he was a genius of his time who went to Paris for higher education, when the average education level of his contemporaries was ninth grade.”

According to family members, even after his official retirement in 2006, Lalezari moved to Colorado and continued his scientific research until 2013, working from his home laboratory.

The IAJF leadership in Los Angeles are planning a community-wide memorial in Los Angeles, gathering friends, colleagues and family members to honor Lalezari on Oct. 27, an event that will also showcase a documentary film about his life and accomplishments.

“While we mourn this great loss, we are confident that the new generation of the Iranian Jews shall keep walking along his path and continue to produce great individuals like Dr. Iraj Lalezari,” the IAJF said in a statement.

Lalezari is survived by his two sons, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He also has a younger brother, Dr. Parviz Lalezari; and two sisters, Mahin and Nasrin.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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