Newsletter February 2017

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 Chaim A. Weizmann (1874-1952) : Famous microbiologist  and politician !

By Em. Prof.  Erick J. Vandamme, Dept. Biochemical and Microbial Technology, Fac. Bioscience Engineering, UGent.

1.Double career pioneer !


Chaim Arziel Weizmann developed an unusual career, initially as a famous industrial microbiologist during World War I (WWI ),  to become later (after WWII)  the first president of the State of Israel !  He may be considered as the father of industrial biotechnology and he remains an iconic figure in the heritage of the Israeli scientific community and of the State of Israel and beyond  up till  today ! Despite his modest childhood, he made historical impact both in science and in politics.

His youth

Chaim A. Weizmann was born on November 27 in 1874 in the rural village Motal , near the city of Pinsk in Belarus (at that time Russian Empire ) as the third child  in a timber merchant family of 15 children. This region was known as the “Pale of Settlement “, a region in Imperial Russia, where permanent Jewish settlement was  exceptionally but legally  permitted. Here he received his basic education and he became also immersed in the Russian Jewish culture and customs and developed his early Zionist aspirations. In his youth, he witnessed anti-semitic pogroms and repressive legislation against Russian Jews, including restricted attendance of Jews to high schools and universities. At age 11 , he moved to Pinsk to attend high school, where he developed a particular interest in chemistry.

The scientist

After high school in Pinsk, the brilliant student moved  as a tutor to Pfungstadt, Germany, allowing him to study chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Darmstadt, Germany; after 2 years of overwork and malnutrition , he returned reluctantly to Pinsk to work in a chemical factory. This allowed him to enroll  in the Technical University of Berlin, then already a  top scientific school in Europe. He did research with Prof. Augustyn  Bistrzycki on synthetic dyestuffs, and patented his findings. While in Berlin, he worked tirelessly, balancing  his time between science and developing his political philosophy with like-minded Zionists. He moved  with Prof. Bistrzycki  for doctoral studies  to the University of Fribourg,  Switzerland. There in 1899, he obtained his Doctorate with honors and was soon appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Geneva from  1901 till  1903 with Prof. Graebe . He sold his patent to the large German chemical industry IG Farbenindustrie  (IG Farben ), later to become a large Nazi regime contractor.  In July  1904 he left Geneva for England , believing it to be a place to live quietly and  to be judged on his merits , living initially in London , but to move soon to  Manchester University,UK.  Prof. Graebe had introduced him  to Prof. William Henry Perkin Jr.( 1838-1907) , son of famous Prof. William Henry Perkin, who at age 18  had chemically produced the dye aniline blue or mauve. This connection led Weizmann to become a chemistry lecturer, as assistant to Prof.W.H. Perkin Jr. Between 1906 and 1914 , Weizmann had a successful scientific career and was promoted to a readership  in biochemistry; also  he  developed an interest in bacteriology and was a regular visitor to the Pasteur Institute in Paris. During 1910-1911 he dedicated himself to the study of fermentation , initially for the production of synthetic rubber. He was to make fame  in 1915 with the development of the acetone-butanol-ethanol (ABE) industrial fermentation process. Especially acetone was then an essential chemical  for manufacturing the much needed ammunition for the British Army in WWI (Weizmann, 1919). Weizmann became in 1916 (till 1919 ) director of the British Admiralty laboratories; also later during WW II he was honorary adviser to the British Ministry of Supply and continued research on synthetic rubber and high octane gasoline; indeed sources of rubber were then inaccessible, due to the Japanese occupation of rubber producing countries. Weizmann’s research work on acetone and its essential contributions  in the British war period was recognized by the cabinet Minister of Armament David Lloyd George, who became later Prime Minister. As a late reward, Weizmann – always a fervent proponent of a homeland for the Jewish people- was to become the first president of the State of Israel in 1949. He served as president until his death at age 77 in 1952.

The politician and first President of Israel

Meanwhile – already since  1904 – , Weizmann  became   a fervent leader among British Zionist; he was introduced to the 1906 general election candidate for North Manchester , Arthur James Balfour, and  he lobbied for the foundation of a Jewish institution of higher studies in Palestine, stressing especially the need for science and engineering education. This engagement resulted in the foundation of the “Technion-Israel Institute of Technology” in 1912, renamed in honor of  him in 1949  and  today still renown as “The Weizmann Institute of Science” in Rehovot, Israel. His grave is located in its gardens. While in Manchester, he persuaded  MP and prime minister Arthur Balfour, also a supporter of the concept of a Jewish homeland, to establish a homeland in Palestine rather than in the then proposed Uganda, Africa. In 1907 he visited Jerusalem  and helped to organize the Palestine Land Development Company and urged Jewish people to move there. On election to Prime Minister in 1916, Lloyd George wanted to honour Weizmann for his invaluable contribution to the war effort ; Weizmann refused, stating that he wanted nothing for himself , but “his people” needed help.  In 1917 he became president of the British Zionist Federation and he wrote  with Arthur Balfour- then Foreign Secretary – the  famous “ Balfour Declaration “ : “His Majesty’s Government view  with favour the establishment  in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people “; this led to the establishment of the State of Israel .  In 1919 he and Prince Faisal of Iraq signed the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement in an attempt to establish good relations between Arabs  and Jews in the Middle East. A year later,  he became president of the World Zionist movement and in 1921 he helped with Albert Einstein to establish the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, while  strongly supporting  the Technion  in Rehovot. In 1936, he addressed the UK Peel-Commission, evaluating the situation in the “British Mandate of Palestine”, that  had  recommended a partition of the region; the government rejected the idea, while Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion (head of the Provisional State Council ) were in favour. Their Zionist vision – rejected by the Arab leaders – towards a new artificial state with a majority of Jewish people , alongside a state with an Arab majority , had  an important  historical impact. He  also wanted Jews from Palestine to get  involved in the war against Germany, as members of  the Jewish Brigade.  After the war, he could not agree with the rise of violence  in Palestine. His influence in the Zionistic movement  decreased , but he remained very influential outside of Palestine. He met with USA president Harry Truman  to negotiate USA support  for the  creation of the State of Israel  , to become its first president in 1949.

2. The acetone-butanol- ethanol (ABE) fermentation process

By the start of the 20th century, shortages of natural rubber activated interest in alternative feedstocks and in chemical routes to produce synthetic rubber. These developments attracted the attention of the  young chemist  Chaim Weizmann, then working with Prof. W. Perkin Jr. at the Chemistry Department  of Manchester University,UK. The chemical company Strange & Graham Ltd. (London ) had also shown interest in a process to prepare butadiene or isoprene – building blocks of rubber – by oxidation of n-butanol or iso-amylalcohol, both obtainable  by fermentation of sugars ;  so they recruited Perkin and Weizmann to work on this project. Attempting to isolate a bacterium producing iso-amylalcohol  as a precursor of isoprene , Weizmann found a bacterium that produced considerable amounts of “a liquid smelling very much like  iso-amylalcohol “, that actually turned out to be a mixture of acetone, butanol and ethanol (ABE) . Wisely ignoring the advice  of Perkin to pour it down the sink, the bacterium involved ,named  Clostridium acetobutylicum, and its fermentation products were soon to be recognized as a great discovery .  However the original Perkin-Weizmann  joint research project had to be refocused under pressure of  WWI , since Britain’s need for acetone as a solvent for the manufacturing of the smokeless explosive cordite became very critical. Furthermore, butanol and acetone had already been reported as fermentation products by L. Pasteur in 1861 and by F. Schardinger (1853-1920) in 1905 . Chemist  Chaim Weizmann, who was also trained during 1909 -1910 in microbiology under Auguste Fernbach ‘s guidance at  the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France, worked  also closely together with a brewing equipment manufacturer R. Seligman (who had introduced the plate heat exchanger) and was thus familiar with all aspects of fermentation processes. In the Manchester lab, he developed in 1915 a suitable method to ferment  potato and grain starch with strict anaerobic Clostridium (Cl. acetobutylicum) bacteria into acetone – then a petrochemical -, essential for  ammunition manufacturing for the British Army. Acetone was especially used in the manufacturing  of cordite explosive propellants.  C. Weizmann was able to select a superior strain of Clostridium acetobutylicum, that produced commercially interesting levels of ABE on cereals feedstock under strict anaerobic fermentation conditions and filed a patent in 1915 (Weizmann, 1919). In 1916 he received a visit from the chief scientist of Nobel’s explosives facility in Ayrshire , offering Weizmann a lucrative contract. However, a large explosion destroyed  the plant soon after .  The “Weizmann” process came to the attention of the Government; he was summoned to London and  the shortage of acetone –and urgent need for cordite – was discussed, since acetone had to be derived from inefficient distillation of wood.  First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and Minister of Armament David Lloyd George encouraged Weizmann’s development of the process on large scale. Pilot plant studies were performed at the J&W Nicholson & Co. gin factory in Bromley-by-Bow, London; soon industrial scale acetone production started in six  adapted British distilleries and in dedicated acetone production facilities at Holton Heath, Dorset, in the course of  1916.  Due to the German blockade and the continued U-boat campaign in the North Atlantic, Britain soon experienced a shortage of grain, maize mash, …National collection campaigns  of horse-chestnuts (conkers, secretly shipped to Holton by the tonne)  and other local starch sources, other than cereals,  were  organized  to keep the fermentation processes running: 30.000 tonnes of acetone were produced in the UK during the war. By 1917 the Weizmann process proved a success and evidence emerged that Britain was outpacing Germany in the production of explosives and propellants . It was also  decided to move solvent production plants to Canada and India next to those in the UK . Also in the USA, the US Air Service and British War Mission purchased the Commercial and Majestic Whiskey distilleries in Terre Haute ,Indiana, and adapted them for acetone production, according to the Weizmann-process. Commercial Solvents Corp. N.Y., managed the new company in exchange for royalties to Weizmann.  For example , between May and November 1918 , 400.000 liter of acetone was produced and 800.000 liter of n-butanol as a co-product . These surpluses of n-butanol became valuable during the prohibition-era in the USA (1920-1933) , since it could replace amylacetate in lacquers (for automobiles), but it also found use in solvents , plasticizers, paints, resins, … From the 1930’s onwards , the acetone-butanol fermentation process was largely superseded by its petrochemical production routes; today it is gaining again worldwide commercial interest : butanol  is now again produced  by large scale  fermentation and is in use as  a solvent and as a biofuel constituent .

3. World War I and II and fermentation innovation

While these developments originated in the UK and the USA, also in Germany,  novel fermentation processes were successfully implemented on large scale.  W. Connstein and K. Lüdecke developed in 1915  fermentation processes for glycerol based on yeast ( much needed to  produce explosives ), for lactic acid as a chemical and food ingredient, and for yeast as protein source for human food and animal feed under WWI pressure (Connstein and Lüdecke, 1919).  Raging World War I (WW I) was indeed to speed up innovative fermentation applications ! So did WW II for penicillin production and application ! These are all examples of the power of microbiology and fermentation processes in the advancement of science and technology , sadly enough pushed by  wartimes !


– Bud,R. 1993. The uses of life: A History of Biotechnology ,Cambridge University Press

– Connstein,W. and Lüdecke, K. 1919. Uber Glycerin-Gewinnung durch Gärung. Ber.D.Chem.Ges., 52, 1385-1391

– Rappoport, Z. 2015.  Chaim Weizmann as a Scientist -From Berlin to the End of his Manchester Period.  Israel Journal of Chemistry, Vol. 55(6-7), 770-780

– Schardinger, F. 1905. Bacillus macerans, ein Aceton bildender Rottebacillus. Zentralbl. Bakteriol.Parasitenkd.Infektionsk.Hyg. Abt. ,2,14, 772-781

– Weizmann,C. 1919. Improvements in the bacterial fermentation of carbohydrates and in bacterial cultures for the same .GB Patent 4,845(filed 1915

– Weizmann, C. 1949. Trial and Error: the Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann. Jewish Publication Society of America.