This spring marks one year since the passing of Prof. Michael Sela, the sixth President of the Weizmann Institute, who was one of the founding fathers of biomedical research in Israel and an international leader in the fields of immunology and drug discovery. To this day, the impact of Prof. Sela’s scientific achievements and institutional leadership are evident in every corner of the Weizmann campus.
Born in Poland in 1924, Michael Sela immigrated to British Mandate Palestine in 1941. He studied protein chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he received his PhD 1954, with research also conducted at the Weizmann Institute.
A member of the Weizmann faculty since 1950, he served as the founder and first Head of the Department of Chemical Immunology (1963-75), Dean of the Faculty of Biology (1970-73), Institute Vice President (1970-71), and its sixth President (1975-85), followed by a tenure as Deputy Chairman of the Institute’s International Board of Governors (1985-2004). Prof. Sela, a Life Member of the Board, continued to be actively engaged in the Institute’s leadership after his term as President, serving on the Executive Council (later the Executive Board) until his passing on May 27, 2022, at the age of 98.
Prof. Sela co-invented and held patents on two blockbuster drugs: Copaxone® for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, and Erbitux® for treating cancer. His collaborative work also provided the basis for the development of two additional cancer drugs: Vectibix® and Portrazza®. However, he said he was most proud of his part in research that did not directly cure disease or result in patents, namely studies that helped elucidate the genetic control of the immune response, leading to the development of new fields in immunology.
Among the many honors bestowed upon Prof. Sela for his seminal scientific contributions, in 1959 he was awarded the Israel Prize in Life Sciences and in 1998 the Wolf Prize in Medicine. Deeply interested in the future of science, Prof. Sela established the Yeda-Sela Fund, which supports basic research projects that may not otherwise receive backing from traditional funding agencies.
He was also deeply committed to the arts, serving as chairman of he Batsheva Dance Company’s Public Council, as an honorary vice chairman of the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, and on the boards of the Rimon School of Music and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Rounding out his public service, Prof. Sela was a founding member of the Yitzhak Rabin Center and a member of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. In 2002, he was named chairman of the United World Colleges’ Israeli National Committee.
In 2019, after a renovation supported by a visionary gift from Michael and his wife Sara, who was a full partner in his philanthropic leadership, the Michael Sela Auditorium was inaugurated at the Institute in his honor. “Michael was a true Renaissance man,” Sara says. “He believed in excellence in science and in every form of art, from classical music to jazz, to dance, literature, painting, and sculpture.
He had a love for life that left our family a fascinating legacy, and a map for following in his footsteps.” “Throughout his career,” adds Weizmann President Prof. Alon Chen, “Prof. Sela made numerous discoveries that forever changed the face of immunological research worldwide. He was a leader and a role model for generations of students and scientists on campus and far beyond. We will continue to be inspired by his legacy, through our warm personal memories, and through the future scientific advances that would never have been possible without his singular contribution and leadership.”