Physicist Giulio Racah Dies
The Racah Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus in Jerusalem. Photo: Public Domain

August 28, 1965

Physicist Giulio Racah, a winner of the Israel Prize, dies at age 56 during a visit to Florence, Italy. The cause of death is believed to be asphyxiation by a faulty gas heater.

Racah was born in Florence on Feb. 9, 1909. His mother’s family claimed to trace its ancestry in Italy back to the destruction of the Second Temple. Racah studied under Enrico Fermi, the creator of the first nuclear reactor. He served as a professor of physics at the University of Pisa for two years before immigrating to Palestine in 1939 to escape Fascist Italy’s anti-Jewish laws.

Racah was a professor, department head and acting president at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which today is home to the Racah Institute of Physics. The work on atomic spectroscopy that Racah led in the 1930s earned the university’s physics department international recognition. The Racah method of spectroscopy is considered one of the most effective methods of studying the atom’s nuclear structure, and the Racah coefficient W has lasting implications in research on nuclear radiation. Racah was awarded the Israel Prize for natural sciences in 1958, and a moon crater was named for him.

Racah also was an ardent Zionist and served as the deputy Haganah commander on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem during the War of Independence.