Dr. Joel Avigan


On Sept. 6, after a bout with cancer, Dr. Joel Avigan, a longtime resident of Silver Spring, died peacefully at his home surrounded by family and friends. He was born in Warsaw in 1920 to Itzhak and Cypra Wegmeister. He was named after his paternal great-grandfather, Joel Wegmeister, a leader in the Warsaw Jewish Community, a philanthropist and a primary aide to the Chasidic rabbi of Gur prior to his death in 1919.

Avigan completed his secondary education in Warsaw in a Jewish school where he benefited from rigorous instruction in a range of Jewish and secular subjects, as well as in Hebrew language. With the support of his parents he went to Jerusalem in 1938 to undertake studies at the Hebrew University. Then World War II broke out, and he never saw his family again. His parents, younger sister, Ruth, and brother, Moshe Zalman, all perished in the Shoah.

During the war, Avigan earned a master’s degree in chemistry. While a college student in Jerusalem, Avigan developed a core of lifelong Israeli friends, many who previously belonged to Zionist youth movements in Europe and who had migrated to Palestine to work and study.

During Israel’s War of Independence, Avigan served as a junior officer in the fledgling Israeli Air Force to produce anti-inflammable coatings for the small fleet of airplanes that were being assembled for combat or transport. It was during this period that he met and fell in love with Vita Poznansky, whom he married under an outdoor chuppah in Jerusalem in 1948. Seeking a new beginning in Israel, he changed his family name from Wegmeister to Avigan (translated as my father’s garden).


After he completed his degree, with a few of his friends Avigan worked on methods to commercially manufacture industrial chemicals. Wanting to pursue graduate studies after his discharge from the Israel Defense Forces, in 1952 he moved with his family to Montreal, where he resumed graduate studies at McGill University. Upon earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1954, Avigan moved with his family to Bethesda, to work as a research scientist at the National Lung, Heart and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health. There he joined Dr. Daniel Steinberg and other colleagues in their effort to uncover key control steps in cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism in order to develop a better understanding of diseases such as atherosclerosis.

He and Vita lovingly raised three children, Mark, Ruth and David, and profoundly influenced them in their professional and intellectual lives. He was always devoted to his family, including his daughters-in-law, Helen and Michelle, son-in-law Lee, and 10 loving grandchildren, Philip, Jonathan, Zachary, Adam, Michael, Jason, Alisa, Rebecca, Noah and Laura.

After a long and productive career, Avigan retired from the NIH in 1992 to pursue other projects and interests. In addition to his scientific career, Avigan maintained for many years a strong interest in the study of Jewish religion and history as well as Hebrew language and literature. Until a short time before his death, he avidly participated and contributed in a scholarly manner to many study and discussion groups dedicated to these subject areas. He had many close friends in Kemp Mill and the Silver Spring Community in which he lived.

Avigan showed devotion and continuing attention in the care of Vita, his wife of 58 years, during a lengthy illness, until her death in 2006. In 2010, at the age of 90, he remarried and found happy companionship with Florence, who had been widowed after the loss of her first husband, Leonard Bienstock.

Funeral services were held Sept. 7 at Young Israel-Shomrai Emunah in Silver Spring. Accompanied by his children to Israel, Avigan was buried on Sept. 9 in Eretz Hachaim Cemetery in Beit Shemesh.

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