Weizmann’s role as a founding father of the State of Israel is well known; less known is his role as a scientist – specifically as a pioneering biochemist. During his lifetime, he published some 100 scientific papers and was awarded about 110 patents. He is perhaps best known in scientific circles for his work on the production of acetone through bacterial fermentation, which is one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as biotechnology. His formulation of acetone, a critical ingredient in cordite, is broadly recognized as playing a key role in the Allies’ victory in WWI.
In a October 22, 1939 handwritten correspondence to Dr. Ernst David Bergmann shown here, it is obvious that Weizmann continued conducting chemical research related to acetone long after WWI. And when World War II broke out, Weizmann and his staff became deeply involved in the war effort, especially in the production of essential pharmaceuticals and other chemicals. He later received high praise from British and American leaders for his contributions to the successful conclusion of the war.
The letter’s recipient, Dr. Bergmann (1903-1975), was a Hebrew scholar known as “the man who gave Israel the atom.” He served as Weizmann’s Scientific Director of Research, Organic Chemistry at the Sieff Research Institute (later the Weizmann Institute; see below). Seeing technological and scientific superiority as the means by which a militarily-outmanned Israel could defend the Jewish people against another Holocaust, he sought to put the laboratories at the disposal of the Israeli military establishment.
Weizmann, however, passionately believed that science must be pure and that the Institute must be wholly independent and free of government intervention, so Bergmann was eventually forced out of the Institute. He served in several important government positions, including Chief of the IDF’s Science Department (1948); Science Adviser to the Minister of Defense (1951); Director of Research of the Division of Research and Infrastructure of the Ministry of Defense (1952); and first Chairman of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (1952), in which capacity he played a crucial role in leading Israel’s nuclear program.
An amusing Bergman anecdote that bears repeating: In 1951, when Science magazine listed countries with the highest per capita rate of papers in organic chemistry, Bergmann wrote in to contend that Israel had earned the top spot. What he failed to mention, however, was that most of the Israeli papers had been written by a single organic chemist: himself.
Dr. Anna Weizmann, Chaim’s sister, who is mentioned toward the end of the letter, was one of only three female scientists in Eretz Yisrael before the 1948 war. She was a noted researcher in organic chemistry at Sieff and later at the Weizmann Institute, where she took over her brother’s laboratory after his death.
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In the June 14, 1946 correspondence to Rav Meir Berlin shown here, Weizmann writes on Daniel Sieff Research Institute letterhead:
It is certainly known to you that I was incredibly busy during these past few weeks in matters of the new institute that we are preparing to establish in Rechovot and with scientific guests from overseas; similarly, I had to visit any number of places in Northern Israel. For this reason, I was denied, to my deep regret, the opportunity to meet with you. This period has passed and I hope and would be happy to see you at any time you wish. Please advise me when you can come to Rechovot.
With greetings of peace and wishes that your health has improved.
The “new institute” that Weizmann discusses in this letter, which ultimately became the world-famous Weizmann Institute, began as the Daniel Sieff Research Institute, which was built in 1934 with the support of Israel and Rebecca Sieff of London in memory of their son. The Sieff Institute was initiated by Weizmann; he was the driving force behind its scientific activity, he pursued research in organic chemistry at its laboratories, and he served as its first president. In November 1944, with the agreement of the Sieff family, the Sieff Institute became the nucleus of a large-scale research institution named after Dr. Weizmann.
The recipient of this letter, Rav Berlin (1880-1949) – who later Hebraicized his name to Meir Bar-Ilan – was a central figure in the religious Zionist movement and the initiator of the National Religious Front, a group of religious parties that presented a united platform in the first Knesset elections. He is perhaps best known for organizing a committee of scholars after the birth of Israel to examine the legal problems of the new Jewish state in the light of Jewish law; for initiating and organizing the publishing of the Talmudic Encyclopedia (1947); and for Bar Ilan University, founded by the American Mizrachi movement and named in his honor. He is also famous for coining the phrase “Eretz Yisrael l’Am Yisrael al Pi Torat Yisrael” (“The land of Israel for the people of Israel in accordance with the Torah of Israel.”)
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On May 4, 1949 (5th of Iyar, 5709 – the first anniversary of Israel’s founding), Weizmann wrote on his presidential letterhead to Mr. Samuel Graubart:
On the eve of my return to Israel, and on this first anniversary of the birth of Israel, I wish to extend my appreciation to you for your helpfulness to the Institute of Science in Rehovoth.
It has long been my dream to create a great center of science in Israel which would help us overcome the many handicaps with which we are faced as regards natural resources. It is my firm conviction that only through scientific research can we, in Israel, develop the necessary absorptive capacity to assure the well-being of all our citizens.
I am indeed happy that here in America the Institute has found friends like yourself who, I am sure, will continue to provide for its support so that we may together realize our common aspirations for a healthy, strong and prosperous Israel.
I hope that some day in the near future you may come to visit us in Rehovoth.
Graubart (b. 1866), immigrated to the United States from Austria in 1886 and worked variously as a peddler, storekeeper, merchant, real estate dealer, jeweler, and liquor dealer. He was a member of Bnai Brith and the Jewish Community Center in Schenectady, a Zionist, and, apparently, a supporter of what was to become the Weizmann Institute.
The belief Weizmann expresses in this letter has been proven correct as the Weizmann Institute – one of the world’s leading multidisciplinary research centers – has indeed played a key role in Israel’s development. Its scientists pioneered cancer research in Israel; designed and built the first electronic computer in the country – one of the first in the world; played a pioneering role in the development of brain research, nanotechnology, and solar energy research; created ways to separate isotopes that are now applied in various places around the world; mapped and deciphered the genes involved in numerous diseases; developed advanced methods for embryonic tissue transplant… the list is almost endless.
The Weizmann Institute was formally dedicated on November 2, 1949, in honor of Weizmann’s 75th birthday. Exhibited here is a commemorative cover and canceled stamps commemorating this historic event.