An Interview with Aftim Acra
Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences
As MainGate co-editor Lynn Mahoney
discovered, interviewing Professor Emeritus Aftim Acra in New York
was a most enlightening experience, pleasurably enhanced by the
presence of his wife Nadia. One of AUB’s most loved and esteemed
faculty members, the Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences
shares his memories of AUB, discusses his environmental research,
and tells us about his prized collection of Lebanese amber.
When did you
arrive at AUB?
Professor Acra: I came to AUB in 1941 and enlisted as an undergraduate
student in Pharmacy. The program in those days was known as pharmaceutical
chemistry, and I graduated in 1946 with distinction. I had always
been at the top of my class, all through school and at the university
Mrs. Acra: I graduated from the AUB School of Public Health as a
public health nurse in 1953. I then worked at the Social Health
Center, which was established by the Lebanese Health Association
with funds from USAID (known then as Point Four). The program was
intended to train students of medicine, nursing, and public health
to acquire some knowledge about the living conditions and health
affairs of families through home visits. My appointment covered
a period of about 30 years.
Professor Acra: She was a pioneer in her field.
When did you start teaching at AUB?
Professor Acra: I started working at AUB in 1949 as a senior technician,
though I had an undergraduate degree in pharmacy. You should know
what my monthly salary was then—311 Lebanese pounds and 63
piasters! I told them, I accept the 311 pounds, but what do I need
the 63 piasters for? They said, it is all calculated and we have
to be exact and just.
I was a diligent and hard worker. There was no “elevator to
success” in those days. I climbed the steps, one step at a
time, until eventually I was promoted and became a full professor.
I retired with the title of Professor Emeritus of Environmental
Science; it was certainly an honor for me.
I always loved AUB and teaching at my alma mater. In 1954 I started
teaching medical laboratory technology in what was then called the
School of Public Health, which was the first of its kind in the
region. In 1956 I went to the United States and studied for my Master
of Public Health (MPH) in Environmental Sciences on scholarship
at the University of North Carolina, where I later returned for
postgraduate studies. When I got my master’s degree, I returned
to AUB and started teaching environmental health, which was how
I served as a midwife for the creation of the Department of Environmental
Health. I was there from day one.Mrs. Acra: You were the only one
in Lebanon and in the Middle East working in that field at that
Professor Acra: Later my students followed in my footsteps and went
all over the world with what they had learned at AUB. At that time
we had students from 60 different countries – a mix of Jordanians,
Lebanese, Palestinians, Greek, Indians, Iranians, Afghanis, and
Pakistanis, among many others.
Mrs. Acra: I remember we had a party for an Iranian student couple
who got engaged at our house.
Tell me about some of the awards you earned.
Professor Acra: I received the National Cedars award in October
1972. The University of North Carolina, where I graduated in environmental
sciences, honored me as a distinguished alumnus in May 1990. My
biographical record was included in the Marquis Who’s Who
in the World (15th Edition, 1998).
What is the biggest change you’ve noticed at AUB?
Professor Acra: Compared to my student days in the 1940s, I notice
how many more buildings there are on campus. I also see a noticeable
increase in environmental awareness at AUB. I remember that in 1966
on the occasion of the University’s centennial year, I became
concerned about the piles of rubble and trash behind buildings and,
with the consent of President Samuel Kirkwood, arranged to undertake
a campus clean-up campaign. By the time this was done, we had cleared
over 40 truckloads to be carried to the dumpsite at the Karantina.
I also learned that there were a number of make-shift incinerators
on campus, more than were needed, so I made arrangements to discontinue
all of them except one.
I also remember that during my student days in pharmacy, we had
students from so many different countries, including Jewish students
from Palestine. A number of them were my classmates. We were friendly
and never had any quarrels about politics. Another thing I recall
was that there were not many girls studying at AUB, and when we
had dancing parties we would try to “borrow” some nurses
from the Medical School. But the MD students would intervene and
not let the nurses go to our parties. But then God was merciful
and sent 30 beautiful Polish girls to the School of Pharmacy [laughing].
Now came our turn—the medical students wanted them to come
to their dances and we said, “No way.”Wh
at do you think students remember most about your classes?
Professor Acra: I think my students liked me; not that I am boasting,
because I was a good teacher. My lectures were delivered in a simple
language and were very factual. I was able to knock the material
into the heads of every single student. I don’t remember that
I failed anybody. I was determined to find out which students were
weak and push them harder. My motive was to teach them to pass.
One other thing my students will certainly remember about me was
that I was a dedicated teacher. I was paid to teach and the classes
were limited to 50 minutes, as you know, but the students knew I
would not stop my lecture at the end of the period. I taught them
how to remind me that it was time to end the class—by noisily
rubbing their shoes on the ground [he laughs].
Mrs. Acra: Some of his students would come home to get help with
projects and stay for hours.
Professor Acra: I loved it, but it was done at the expense of my
Are you still in touch with your former students?
Professor Acra: Oh, yes. One of them is now working for Aramco in
Saudi Arabia and we are in touch weekly by e-mail. I remember reviewing
the draft of the doctoral dissertation of a former student who was
getting his PhD in Australia—making suggestions or changes,
because his adviser could not see him often enough to give him the
help he needed. The draft document would be mailed by him from Australia
to me in Tucson, Arizona.
When did you leave AUB?
Professor Acra: After I retired from the Faculty of Health Sciences
in 1992, I worked voluntarily in the Department of Civil and Environmental
Engineering until 1997. I continued advising students on graduate
research programs and, of course, also developing my many research
ideas, on which some of the professors or graduate students collaborated
in implementing. I have also been producing a good number of publications.
Thanks to the people who invented e-mail, I still communicate with
my former colleagues at AUB on the research ideas that cross my
mind in Tucson, Arizona, where I now live. Some of the successful
ones are published jointly.
What do you think are the most pressing environmental issues in
the United States and Lebanon?
Professor Acra: Since the US is so huge, the problems differ from
city to city. In Tucson, Arizona, for instance, we cannot rely on
the water supply. So, what we do is fill transparent, plastic bottles
with tap water and put them out in the sun for solar disinfection.
I developed the technology of having the ultra-violet rays kill
the bacteria, and two of my booklets on the solar disinfection of
water were published by UNICEF. A Swiss scientist who came to Lebanon
and learned the technology from me went back to Switzerland and
raised enough money to introduce the solar disinfection technique
in some of the countries in Latin and South America.
In Lebanon, there are so many issues, but I would like to concentrate
on the coastal waters. One of the major problems is solid waste
collected in Beirut and hauled all the way to the Karantina area,
where it is dumped by the shore, truck after truck, so that it almost
looks like a hill. The bulldozers come and compress the surface
layers to make room for more fresh trash, and often push some into
the sea. This pollutes the sea; and because the main coastal current
runs from south to north, the lighter material does not sink but
is carried by the current northward, and the waves then push this
material onto the shore. The same thing also happens in the other
port cities of Jounieh, Tripoli, and Sidon. This is one of the major
marine pollutants in Lebanon, but not the only one.
There is also the matter of sewage. In Beirut there are some 15
to 17 sewer outfalls into the sea that extend not more than 20 meters
into the sea, which
is not enough. So, wherever they discharge, they pollute the coastal
seawaters. Another study I undertook with the help of one of my
graduate students was the determination of the oil content in seawater
along the coast of Lebanon. We took samples of seawater from about
25 locations and tested them for petroleum oil. We discovered, of
course, that the oil content was high in the port cities due to
the discharged oily bilge water by the ships. However, we also found
that the oil concentration in the waters far north of Tripoli was
great, and concluded that there could possibly be petroleum deposits
underneath the coastal shelf in that area. I published my findings
in the AUB Bulletin in 1972. As a consequence, Syria contracted
an American company to survey its coastal waters for oil; and the
Lebanese authorities, I understand, have hired a British company
to do the same in its northern waters.
But one has to drill before one can find out if the oil is commercially
Tell me about your research on Lebanese amber.
Professor Acra: It started as a hobby and ended up as a scientific
project. I was lucky, really. In 1962 I offered to guide the students
and professors of geology to Furzol in the Beqa’a Valley in
a search for fish fossils that could
be found there, as I was informed by my friend Sami Atiyyeh. My
companions and I stopped at Dahr Al-Baida to collect some crustacean
fossils that abound there. It was then and there that I saw a piece
of brownish material that looked like brown broken glass, and I
wondered what it was. Upon asking my companion, Professor Young,
what he thought it was, he took out his cigarette lighter, burned
the edge of it, and said it was amber. That was the only piece we
could find there. I went back a couple of weeks later, this time
accompanied by Raif Milki, and collected more of the same material
in an adjacent lot. And when we started surveying that area and
found more, my interest was triggered.
Later, guided by information given to me by Professor Edgel of the
Department of Geology, we found quite a substantial amount of amber
in Jezzine in the south, which we collected. My son Fadi and I started
our own collection and began studying the pieces for their fossil
inclusions. I then contacted Professor Paul Whally at the British
Museum in London, who was most willing to undertake a study of these
fossils. He later published some papers on certain moth fossils
and named one after me (Parasabatinca Aftimacra).
What is unique about the amber of Lebanon is that it is definitely
the oldest found anywhere in the world, going back to the Lower
Cretaceous Period (110 to 135 million years ago).
What impact has AUB had on your life?
Professor Acra: I became a different person really, in the sense
that I learned to think freely, be liberal in my ideas, thoughts,
and actions. At the same time, to do my best, to be creative and
determined in achieving my goals.
Tell me about your children.
Professor Acra: We have four children. All studied at International
College and some went on to AUB. Our youngest studied chemical engineering
at the University of Pennsylvania, and after getting his BS came
to AUB for his MD and graduated with distinction. He went to Vanderbilt
Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, for his residency and is
a specialist in pediatric gastroentology. Reem is a highly successful
bridal and eveningwear fashion designer in New York. She is an incredibly
hard worker and we are very proud of her. Fadi, who lives in Pittstown,
Pennsylvania, studied the art of
jewelry-making and is now a jewelry designer.
Mrs. Acra: All of our children are happy and successful, thank God
and thank AUB!