Pioneering microbial geneticist Salvador Edward Luria was born Salvatore Luria in Turin, Italy, on August 13, 1912, the second son of David Luria, an accountant, and his wife Esther. His school years coincided with the rise of fascism in Italy, and he was strongly influenced by several of his teachers who resisted the movement. Luria later noted that while he did well in math and literature courses, and had vague longings for an academic life, he developed no real passion for learning. Although his grades in chemistry and biology were only mediocre, he chose to attend medical school “because of my parents’ wish and my own lack of alternative inclinations.” He graduated from the University of Turin Medical School in 1935, near the top of his class.
Certain that he did not want to pursue medical practice, Luria sought training in radiology, hoping it would allow him to combine interests in biology and physics. His training was briefly interrupted in 1936-37, while he served his required time in the Italian army as a junior medical officer. Following this, he moved to the University of Rome to finish the radiology courses and, at the urging of his friend Ugo Fano, study physics. During his year among the physicists–including Enrico Fermi–Luria was introduced to radiation biology, and to Max Delbrück’s recent theories about the gene as a molecule. These theories, he wrote later, seemed to “open the way to the Holy Grail of biophysics.” Soon afterwards, Luria was introduced to bacteriophages–viruses that infect bacteria–by a bacteriologist friend, and quickly adopted “phage” as the ideal research organism for testing Delbrück’s theories.
By late 1938 Italy had become increasingly aligned with Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policies. As a Jew, Luria was barred from academic research fellowships or other awards, so he moved to Paris, where he obtained a fellowship in Fernand Holweck’s laboratory at the Institute of Radium. When the German army invaded in June 1940, Luria traveled by bicycle to Marseilles to acquire an American immigration visa, then on to Lisbon, where he embarked for New York, arriving on September 12th. Consult the Archive