Rebeca Gerschman was born on June 19, 1903 in Carlos Casares, province of Buenos Aires, into a wealthy family. She graduated in Biochemistry and Pharmacy from the University of Buenos Aires. This course at that time belonged to the Faculty of Medicine, and was taught at the headquarters at Av. Córdoba 2122 (current Faculty of Economic Sciences), in the Balvanera neighborhood.
In 1930, at the age of 27, he entered the Houssay Institute of Physiology located, at that time, at 4185 Costa Rica Street in the Palermo neighborhood, where he completed his doctoral thesis under the direction of Dr. Bernardo Houssay and the tutelage of Dr. Agustín D. Marenzi. She obtained her doctorate in 1937 with the thesis titled “Plasma potassium in the normal and pathological states”, work for which two years later she would obtain the award for the best doctoral thesis. It describes a method to determine blood potassium and its variations in physiological (without disease) and pathological conditions, which would be known as the Gerschman-Marenzi method, very new at that time.
At the end of World War II, Rebeca Gerschman traveled to the United States to pursue specialized studies at the University of Rochester, New York.
At that time she had an interest in research into the mechanisms of action of gases, both toxic (frequently used in war) and those that make up the air we breathe. This theme had applications in the design of the adequate supply of natural gases, of special relevance in aeronautics, given the high concentrations of oxygen to which pilots were subjected in the cabins of their aircraft.
Rebeca Gerschman began working on the effect of gases on physiology. She found similarities in two biological processes: the effects caused by oxygen at high concentrations and ionizing radiation. Observations showed that aviation pilots subjected to high oxygen pressures often experienced premature aging of their skin, very similar to that caused by low-intensity ionizing radiation. This idea that oxygen is harmful because it generates free radicals gave rise to his theory, known as the Gerschman theory, which in 1954 was published in the prestigious journal Science, with the title: “Oxygen poisoning and X-irradiation: a mechanism in common".
This Gerschman theory, about the implication of oxygen free radicals - molecules that oxidize and damage tissues in the pathogenesis of certain diseases and in the aging processes, was rejected by the scientific community because it was opposed to orthodox conceptions. of the moment.
But in 1969, Rebeca's hypothesis was confirmed by Joe M. McCord and Irwin Fridovich, when they discovered a superoxide dismutase enzyme and scientists had to abandon their reluctance towards the theory of oxygen free radicals to consider it a fundamental contribution to biology. and modern medicine.
Gerschman's work paved the way to the recognition of the situations and conditions in which antioxidants and pro-oxidants exert actions on the human body. He theorized that, surely, it was the predecessor of this new veneration of foods, medicines and antioxidant treatments to stop the aging of cells.
After working in the United States for fifteen years, holding the position of Adjunct Professor of Physiology, in 1960 he returned to Argentina. Here she obtained the position of Professor of the Chair of Physiology at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Biochemistry of the University of Buenos Aires. But her scientific production at the University of Buenos Aires decreased considerably, due to the budgetary restrictions of the time and also to the deficient material resources at her disposal. She wrote works and chapters of specialized books related to her theory. She alternated her research work with the teaching she provided in her Physiology Chair.
She applied avant-garde teaching methods for her time, such as using scientific film as a learning tool. Gerschman searched for and obtained films from foreign universities about experimental trials in physiology and pharmacology, which she then showed in her classes, through a projector. She also invited prestigious scientists, experts in Physiology, to give specialized talks. Some guests were foreigners and gave the lecture in English. Practice that today is very common in postgraduate studies.
In 1970 she stopped working as an active teacher, but was named Consulting Professor (equivalent to Professor Emeritus), a position she held until 1980.
Rebeca Gerschman's pioneering work in the study of oxygen free radicals was recognized internationally and her name circulated among candidates for the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine during the 1980s.
Unfortunately, when they were about to interview her for the selection of the prize winners, the Argentine scientist was in a very advanced state of a disease that she suffered from (a type of anemia that attacks bone marrow cells in an immune manner). Illness that led to her death, at the age of 83, on April 4, 1986, in Buenos Aires.
Rebeca Gerschman was a woman committed to science, dedicating her life exclusively to her work, which gave her international fame and prestige. With her great work as a scientist she opened a new stage in research in the field of free radicals.
Although she did not receive the Nobel Prize during her lifetime, her work was recognized internationally. And at the national level she received many awards from scientific conferences or conferences.
Starting in 2010, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation awards the Rebeca Gerschman Award to Argentine researchers over 60 years of age who stand out for their contribution to the production of new knowledge, for the social and productive impact of their technological innovations and for the training of human resources. This award is part of the Bernardo Houssay Award (the Houssay Award is given to researchers under 45 years of age and the Houssay Career Award to researchers over 45 years of age).