RUSSIAN-BORN BRITISH CHEMIST, PRESIDENT OF ISRAEL
One of the few who have achieved success in two disparate fields, chemist and statesman Chaim Weizmann was born on November 17, 1874, in the small town of Motol, Russia—part of what was known as the Pale of Settlement, an area where Jewish families were allowed to live. Beginning at age four he attended a religious school in which classes were conducted in Yiddish. (He did not learn Russian until he was eleven.) In 1885 he migrated to Pinsk to attend a Russian high school, where he studied chemistry and devoted much of his spare time to Zionist activities. He later became president of the World Zionist Organization (from 1921), president of the Hebrew University in Palestine (from 1932), and the first president, a largely ceremonial position, of the new State of Israel (from its establishment in 1948 until his death).
After university studies in Germany and Switzerland (he earned a Ph.D. in 1899 for research on dyestuffs), he taught as a privatdocent (unsalaried lecturer) at the University of Geneva. He subsequently carried out basic and applied research at the University of Manchester in England. His academic research was supplemented by industrial research. In 1904 he was awarded the first of his 110 patents. He became a British citizen in 1910.
During World War I, a search for synthetic rubber in England led to Weizmann's classic work on the fermentation of glucose , a sugar containing six carbon atoms, as a source of acetone (1915), urgently needed by the British government for the manufacture of cordite (smokeless powder). Weizmann's use of a fermenting agent to produce acetone followed his discovery of the acid-resistant microorganism Clostridium acetobutylicum ; this method of acetone production became known as the Weizmann process. At the request of Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, the Weizmann process was put into operation on an enormous scale in England, Canada, and the United States. The rapid wartime expansion of this process (from a laboratory to an industrial scale) was not only unique among microbiological processes used in industry, but was also the forerunner of the rapid expansion of penicillin production during World War II, as well as of the breadth of operations of many of today's biotechnological processes.
Weizmann knew that his fermentation process yielded chemical compounds containing three and four carbon atoms and predicted that the same process could produce the substances on which modern petrochemical industries are based. He often enunciated the need for countries (especially those poor in natural oil) to replace a petroleum-based chemical industry with one based on fermentation.
The Balfour Declaration (1917), the first formal international recognition of Zionism, was, to some extent, a culmination of Weizmann's scientific and political efforts. His fermentation process, which contributed to the Allies' victory in World War I, was not a direct cause of the declaration but was certainly an indirect one.
During the two decades following World War I, politics replaced chemistry as Weizmann's main pursuit. However, he did pursue scientific research, alongside his political activities, until the end of his life. In his later years (and while president of Israel), he worked at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, where he died on November 9, 1952. In Israel his grave is a place of national pilgrimage.
SEE ALSO Starch .
George B. Kauffman
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Reinharz, Jehuda (1993). Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Statesman. New York: Oxford University Press.
Weizmann, Chaim (1949). Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann. New York: Harper.