As a radical force for change, science has a power that can surpass even politics. This was something Chaim Weizmann - father of biochemistry and Israel's first president - knew well. Hugh Aldersey-Williams describes a remarkable life

Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Saturday 09 May 1998 23:02

ANTON CHEKHOV once remarked: "There is no national science, just as there is no national multiplication table." There are many who share the conviction that science is above the common fray. Scientific fact is a fact wherever it is found or discussed. But which truths are revealed is often shaped by external forces. Last month, for example, Richard Dawkins, who holds Oxford's professorship in the Public Understanding of Science, reiterated his belief in the objectivity of science on Radio 4's Start the Week.

We have a general expectation that efforts of technological research and applied science will be directed to the national good. However, some regimes have sanctioned pseudo-sciences: apartheid South Africa continued to investigate eugenics long after it was discredited elsewhere; Soviet scientists were prevented from making use of quantum theory because its reliance on the probabilities (not the certainties) of subatomic events contradicted Marxist-Leninist dogma.

But real science - so-called pure science - is also subject to national influences. Governments fund much of this work, and in doing so consciously or unconsciously bias which research is undertaken and even the way in which it is done. A national crisis, such as the BSE situation in Britain, can be a boon to a particular research field. Many breakthroughs in pure science have been achieved on the back of national aggran-disement: Darwin's voyages were only possible thanks to the activities of the British Navy which had little or no interest in evolutionary biology.

The remarkable story of Chaim Weizmann exemplifies how intertwined the pursuit of science can be with the pursuit of wider human endeavour. When the state of Israel formally came into existence 50 years ago this week, Weizmann was its first president. And he got there through his research. He later wrote in his autobiography, Trial and Error: "The tug-of-war between my scientific inclinations and my absorption in the Zionist movement has lasted throughout my life. There has never been a time when I could feel justified in withdrawing, except temporarily - and then in a sort of strategic retreat only - from the Jewish political field. Always it seemed that there was a crisis, and always my conscience forbade me to devote more than a part of my time to my personal ambitions. The story of my life shows how, in the end, my scientific labours and my Zionist interests ultimately coalesced, and became supplementary aspects of a single purpose."

Weizmann was born in Russia in 1874 but received his university education in Germany and Switzerland. At first, his interest in science dominated; absorbed in his studies in Fribourg, he missed the long-awaited First Zionist Congress convened in 1897 in nearby Basel.

While still a student in Berlin, he worked at the Charlottenburg Technical College in the laboratory of Carl Liebermann, one of the pioneers of synthetic dyestuffs - a major theme of 19th-century chemistry. It was this research that enabled the growth of the chemical companies that were to form the core of German industry. The experience was formative for Weizmann in establishing his belief that research could be undertaken both for profit and for the national good.

Weizmann was soon in receipt of a regular income - royalties on the patent for a novel dyestuff synthesis that he had developed while at the lab. By the time he obtained a position at the University of Geneva in 1900, he could afford to lecture without pay.

Ironically, the company to which he sold his patent was IG Farbenindustrie, the chemicals combine which later became infamous for manufacturing the gas used in the Nazi death camps, and which was broken up after the Second World War into the pharmaceuticals giants Bayer, BASF and Hoechst. Weizmann later wrote that his dealings with the company caused him no concern at the time: "Hardly anyone thought of it as the focus of German military might and of German dreams of world conquest. But it gives me a queer feeling to remember that I too, like many another innocent foreign chemist, contributed my little to the power of that sinister instrument of German ambition."

Despite his position in Geneva, Weizmann felt the want of money to fund his Zionist activities. But it was not long before he received an invitation from Samuel Shriro, an oil magnate with Zionist sympathies working in Russia. There he could speak on his cause and, at the same time, investigate ways that the waste products of oil-refining might be put to use (aromatic compounds similar to those used to make synthetic dyes are abundant in oil byproducts, so Weizmann was well qualified for this work). Shriro introduced him in Russian circles as a promising chemist, and also provided funds for him to travel to Zionist conferences. This was the beginning of a long career that saw Weizmann combine his scientific skills with the passionate promotion of Zionism.

In 1904, at the age of 30, having established himself as a prime mover in Zionist circles on the Continent, it was time for Weizmann to move on from Geneva - his post there and the income from his patent were both about to expire. He regarded Switzerland, already overcrowded with aliens, as offering limited scope for him and knew little of France; Germany was "out of the question", but "England presented itself as a country in which, at least theoretically, a Jew might be allowed to live and work without let or hindrance, and where he might be judged entirely on his merits," as he wrote in Trial and Error. He chose Manchester over London for its new laboratories; it was the centre of Britain's chemical industry, as well as a hub of Zionist activity. Here Weizmann could attempt to unify the strands of Zionism which had fallen into rivalry after the death in 1904 of Theodor Herzl, the father of the movement. He was taken on at Manchester University by Professor William Perkin, where "he became the founder of what we now call biotechnology, which ultimately enabled him to found the state of Israel," according to the British Nobel laureate, Max Perutz.

Weizmann began to diversify into biology, working on proteins and physiological chemistry with spells at the Pasteur Institute in Paris where he addressed one of the chief problems of the day: how to create a synthetic alternative to rubber, the price of which was rising rapidly. He explored the possibility of using bacteria to ferment potato starch and generate acetone and butyl alcohol (in polymerised form its derivative, butadiene, becomes rubber-like). When the First World War broke out, this process assumed enormous importance, and when rubber prices rose again after the war, it was German industry that took most advantage of Weizmann's synthesis.

In addition, the solvent acetone is needed in the production of smokeless cordite and other explosives. It was conventionally produced via distillation, but Weizmann's "Bacillus BY" (the B for bacterium, the Y for Weizmann: its scientific name is Clostridium acetobutylicum) enabled the rapid production of much larger quantities the solvent.

Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, presented Weizmann with a demand for 30,000 tons of the organic solvent. The difficulties of moving production from laboratory to industry scale led Weizmann to seek the advice of those people who were already performing bacterial fermentation for industrial purposes - the brewers.

Seconded to the Ministry of Munitions, and informed by David Lloyd George of Britain's poor preparation in explosives, Weizmann embarked upon a series of travels, visiting scientific specialists in friendly countries and assessing the potential for manufacturing acetone in various parts of the Empire. Meanwhile, the long task of developing and building an acetone plant and converting requisitioned British breweries for this purpose continued; but by the time an acetone plant was feasible, all Britain's starch crops were needed for food, so production moved to North America, using maize as the raw material. Weizmann had succeeded in introducing one of the first bacterial processes in industry; it was this achievement that earned him his reputation as the father of biotechnology.

By the summer of 1915, established in Lon-don and travelling as a scientific government emissary, Weizmann was able to build on his contact with statesmen and government officials. Unlike many other Zionists, Weizmann's conviction was that a statement of support from the British government would cement the solidarity of nations with significant Jewish populations behind the Zionist cause. In the event, the Balfour Declaration, a document designed to aver the British government's right of occupation in Palestine and agreed by the Cabinet on the last day of October 1917, did not achieve these ends, but was seen to legitimise the Jewish claim to a "national home" in Palestine. For Weizmann, this famously Delphic declaration could "mean as much or as little as the Jewish people made of it".

Lloyd George saw it as a straight exchange. The Balfour Declaration was "the British government's gift to the Jews in return for Weizmann's vital contribution to the war effort," according to Max Perutz. Weizmann disputed this view, pointing out that his overtures on the matter had begun as long ago as 1906.

The momentum that the Declaration gave to the Zionist cause meant that Weizmann spent little time in the laboratory during the 1920s. He could not find the time for further work on synthetic rubber, nor to develop his interests in the potential for making synthetic foods. However, this period did see the beginnings of what would turn out to be Weizmann's most significant and lasting contribution to science: a dream nurtured since before the war, to establish a Jewish university in Palestine. As ever with Weizmann, science and Zionism were linked inextricably. "There were two factors which urged me on," he wrote. "First, my intrinsic relation to science, which had been part of my life since boyhood; second, my feeling that in one way or another it had something to do with the building of Palestine."

Exactly what the proposed university had to do with nation-building was a subject of debate. Some spoke of the need for general education, others specifically of science. There were arguments as to whether the intake should be Jewish or secular, whether the focus should be on teaching or research, and if the latter, whether that should be in the pure or applied sciences.

In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, Weizmann renewed his fund-raising efforts, this time petitioning old friends from his Manchester days, in whose nascent business he had invested his governmental earnings from the First World War, the Marks & Spencer brothers-in-law Simon Marks and Israel Sieff. The Sieffs in particular seized upon the opportunity to commemorate their son, Daniel, who had recently committed suicide, as well as to benefit the Jewish people and the new homeland. That year, Weizmann founded his institute: it adjoined an experimental agriculture station at Rehovot, 15 miles south of Tel Aviv.

It was clear that staffing it would not be a problem: among those forced to flee Germany were many top scientists, and the Daniel Sieff Research Institute opened its doors in the spring of 1934. Its earliest trials concentrated on problems relevant to the local economy, working in organic chemistry and biochemistry on citrus, dairy, silk and tobacco production, as well on as the synthesis of chemicals for medical use. Weizmann's interest in synthetic foods - he devised a "blitz broth" to convert otherwise inedible vegetable matter into food during the First World War - gained new urgency in these arid surroundings. But this pioneering community was diverted from these activities into providing medicines for the Allied forces in the Middle East.

As war loomed again, Weizmann once more saw that his scientific expertise might win favours for the Zionist cause. "He dreamed once again of making a 'Jewish' contribution to the protection of England," according to Barnet Litvinoff in his biography Weizmann: Last of the Patriarchs. "In the First World War his scien- tific work put him on the road to the Balfour Declaration. If the worst happened again, it could bring him to the Jewish State."

Meeting with Winston Churchill, who was once more at the Admiralty, he was again given a laboratory and appointed Honorary Chem- ical Advisor to the Ministry of Supply. In 1940, he travelled to the United States with the task of presenting a scheme for using grain surplus to produce butadiene for synthetic rubber (Britain's supply of natural rubber from the Far East had now been cut off). The hidden agenda was that Weizmann's offer of scientific help would bring support for his political cause, but this was not realised. The door to the Oval Office opened, but President Roosevelt saw Weizmann as a scientist and nothing more.

The revolutionary method Weizmann took to the US was based on a process developed at the Daniel Sieff Research Institute for the conversion of agricultural waste into aromatic compounds. One of these was isoprene, from which synthetic rubber could be made; others were acetone- related compounds which could be made into high-octane fuels. During the darkest period of the war, Weizmann spent 15 months in the US working on these projects, as well as furthering his political ends. "I divided my time almost equally between science and Zionism."

As the war approached its conclusion, Weizmann's 70th birthday present from Jewish leaders (including, most notably, Meyer Wiesgal, an important American Zionist) was the com-mitment to expand the Daniel Sieff Research Institute into a world-class centre of scientific excellence. What is now called the Weizmann Institute of Science today employs 2,400 staff. Its research agenda has expanded to include mathematics, particle physics, biomedicine.

Other work currently being undertaken at the Weizmann Institute focuses on energy research and plant genetics, areas of understandable interest in Israel. A solar research unit is investigating ways of storing the sun's energy by using it to change certain materials between high- and low-energy phases. Molecular biologists are examining the genetic composition of major crops, and developing transgenic versions of wild relatives of wheat native to Israel.

There is a programme of nuclear research: in a recent breakthrough, researchers from the Weizmann Institute and collaborators in Canada found a way to separate the isotopes of chemical elements more efficiently - work which has great chemical and medical applications, as well as relevance for energy and military purposes.

Weizmann, a man of action, pursued his dual careers in science and statecraft without stinting. On the expiry of the British Mandate on 15 May 1948, he was chosen as the first president of Israel. Frustrated by this mainly ceremonial role, he at last had time to muse. In a final chapter of Trial and Error he concludes that his weaving together of science and politics was not purely by personal choice: natural resources forced them together. "It is part of a general question of raw materials, which has been a preoccupation with me for decades, both as a scientist and a Zionist; and it had always been my view that Palestine could be made a centre of the new scientific development which would get the world past the conflict arising from the monopolistic position of oil."

Weizmann predicted that conflict could arise in the future over access to resources other than oil, such as water or sunlight, and it is no coincidence that much of the research being carried out at the Weizmann Institute today is concerned with making the most of these resources, the one scarce, the other abundant, in Israel.

Chaim Weizmann himself showed time and again throughout his long career how scientific inquiry can be used for broader ends. In turn, his political ambitions to some extent determined the research he did. Without a cause to advance, he might have made quite different scientific discoveries. But without his science, he surely would not have achieved his political goal. !

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