Primo Levi and Eligio Perucca

The figure of Eligio Perucca, professor of physics at the Politecnico di Torino from1922 to 1960 is the figure of a gruff scientist who had published several scientific articles, including one way back in 1919 that documented some observations in the field of stereochemistry. He anticipated of 51 years important discoveries, made in 1970, in the fields of racemic mixtures and stereochemistry (that led to a Nobel prize earned by Prelog in 1975). Within our context, Perucca is of interest because Myriam Anissimov pointed him out as one of the professors that prevented the university student Primo Levi from writing a thesis involving experimentation. By doing this, he would have acted as a faithful executer of the anti-Jewish laws in effect at the time. More recently, however, an international team of crystallographers got interested in the case and redeemed the name of Eligio Perucca from this accusation. In the first place, he was unable to serve as Primo Levi’s thesis advisor for bureaucratic reasons. In the second place, research revealed that he was a committed anti-Fascist, a strenuous opponent of the regime of that time and of its anti-Semitic policies. 

Thus the untraceable line that bound Primo Levi to Eligio Perucca merely deals with the consultation of some Perucca’s physics textbooks and university lessons by Primo Levi. What is true is the fact that eminent Italian and American scientists and prestigious scientific journals have dedicated a good deal of time and space to these issues.

«Perucca was remembered as a personaggio bizzarro (eccentric character) in a history of the science faculty of the University of Turin. In an attempt to establish the basis of this characterization, we sought out writings of contemporary Turinese scientists who might have recorded something about Perucca, including the acclaimed author and chemist, Primo Levi».

B. Kahr, Y. Bing, W. Kaminsky, D. Viterbo, "Turinese Stereochemistry: Eligio Perucca's Enantioselectivity and Primo Levi's Asymmetry", Angewandte Chemie International Edition, XLVIII, 2009, 21, pp. 3744-48

«For some scientists, the story might have ended there. But not for Kahr. "This Perucca guy became my new stereochemistry hero, so I tried to find out who he was" Kahr explains. He quickly learned that Perucca had a reputation as an outstanding experimentalist and was the author of textbooks. So far, so good. But after a little more digging, Kahr discovered that Perucca was remembered in a written history of the science faculty of the University of Turin as a personaggio bizarro. «That was an apple just couldn't leave hanging on the tree» Kahr says. «I had to know what that meant». […] Soon, Kahr found himself rereading The Periodic Table by the Italian chemist Primo Levi,one of Kahr's all-time favourite authors, on the off chance that Levi had mentioned something about his Turinese contemporary, Perucca. To his surprise, Kahr found that Levi took an interest in optical rotation, but the book makes no mention of Perucca. Levi did note, however, that as a Jew living during the Mussolini regime, he was barred from completing a graduate thesis that required experimental work».

M. Jacoby, "Recognizing a Pioneer", Chemical & Engineering - Science & Technology, LXXXVI, 2008, 33, pp. 38-41

«Di sicuro Primo Levi dovette confrontarsi con il razzismo durante i suoi studi di chimica all'Università di Torino ma non per colpa di Eligio Perucca. Questo il risultato di un'indagine storica condotta da chimici italiani ed americani».

B. Pelucchi, "Storie di asimmetrie di uomini", Le Scienze Web News, 2008

«As a promising student in 1940, Primo Levi, the Italian chemist, writer and Auschwitz survivor, struggled to persuade professors in Turin to take him on as a doctoral candidate. But now it seems that one of the key culprits may have been wrongly accused. A historical investigation has posthumously cleared Eligio Perucca of racism towards Levi, but not of grumpiness. Besides preserving his famously cantankerous reputation, the investigation also credits Perucca with a chemical discovery thought to have been made much later».

K. Sanderson, "New Account of Primo Levi Racism Row", Nature News, 2008

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