The fascinating arc of chemist Aron Kuppermann’s life


The Eulogizer wrote recently about physical chemist Aron Kuppermann, a native of Brazil who died Oct. at 83 in California. His professional accomplishments were significant, according to academic and scholarly standards. But fascinating new details of his personal and professional lives, provided by Kuppermann himself in an autobiographical monograph he wrote, tell a quintessentially Jewish and American story of the 20th century. (The Eulogizer offers a hat tip to Kimm Fesenmaier of Caltech, Kuppermann’s academic home for nearly 50 years, for providing this material.)

Kuppermann’s father was born in Warsaw and left home at 18. He spent four years in Germany before immigrating to Brazil. His mother was born in Trostenetz, a small shtetl in Ukraine, and immigrated to Newark, New Jersey, with three older half-brothers when she was about 14. Her mother immigrated to Sao Paulo, Brazil, a few years later with her remaining four children and step-children.


Years later, Kuppermann’s mother traveled to Brazil to visit her mother, whom she had not seen in years, where she met and married his father. However, as Kuppermann put it, “she could not get used to living in the provincial environment of Sao Paulo of the mid 1920s and, when I was six months old, the three of us moved to New York.”

In New York, where neither of his parents had college educations, his father eked out “a meager living” during the Great Depression as a laborer in a small factory making women’s purses. When Kuppermann was three months old, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died three years at 34, while Kuppermann spent those years in foster homes and orphanages. After her death, his father moved the family back to Brazil, where he remarried and opened a small haberdasher’s shop.

“Despite my parent’s very limited means,” Kuppermann wrote, “they made sure I always attended good schools.” In sixth grade, a teacher proposed a math problem that set him going on that pursuit. He later decided to combine math and science as something he enjoyed, and which would provide him with a profession. Later, after having taught at the University of Illionis, he spent a year back in his hometown “as a test for a permanent return to our grass roots and family environment,” but he realized that in 1959 “the difference in the atmosphere and resources for doing research in Brazil and the United States came clearly into focus. At that time, over 40 years ago, I realized that two options were available to me: I could either live in Brazil or be a research scientist, but I could not do both. It also became clear that my commitment to science was so deeply ingrained that to give it up was not a realistic choice.” The family returned to Illinois, where he continued his professional and research career. He ended up spending nearly 50 years on the faculty at Caltech. Three of his four children became professors at medical schools in California, and a fourth, with Down Syndrome, “has given me joy and added a different and more understanding perspective to my life, including my professional life.”

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at

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