What Influential Jewish Fellow Was Born November 27, 1874? Originally Published November 25-26, 2022.

Here is a hint to the answer to our question for those who have heard the story over morning minyan breakfast:  this person was first cousin to the mother of our friend Joe Charny.

Dr. Chaim Azriel Weizmann was born in Motol, Belarus, to Ozer & Rachel Leah Weizmann.  He would study biochemistry in Switzerland and Germany.  In 1915, when he was a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester in England, he invented a fermentation process to convert starch (such as from corn or potatoes) into acetone and butyl alcohol, using Clostridium acetobutylicum, a bacterium which he had isolated.  (We see acetone in paint thinner or nail polish remover.)  Dr. Weizmann, who would become known as the father of industrial fermentation, created the Commercial Solvents Corporation.  He had become a British citizen in 1910 (his papers were signed by Winston Churchill as Home Secretary).  He held several patents on aromatics and dyes, and sold them to help put his brothers and sisters through college. 

Gunpowder - black powder (as invented by the Chinese), not the smokeless cordite variety - is a mixture of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur, and charcoal.  Cordite, though, is compounded with acetone in a mixture derived from formulations begun in 1865, generally made with guncotton (nitrocellulose), nitroglycerin, petroleum jelly, and acetone.  It replaced the less-controllable, smokier, and more volatile black powder.  (See the Squirrel Hill Historical Society’s presentation about the Arsenal in Lawrenceville, at around 0:30 minutes in, for a demonstration of the difference.)  And cordite was important, as World War I had recently begun.

Acetone was in short supply in England during the war because some needed minerals had been coming from Germany, now an enemy.  As we say, Dr. Weizmann had invented a process of obtaining acetone, and he gave - he donated - the process and the rights to development to the British government.  Soon thereafter he was appointed director of the Royal Navy laboratories, and chemically helped to drive the Allies to victory. 

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was toppling.  Britain and France had signed agreements (no other countries as yet had joined) and they were seeking the support of both the Arabs and the Zionists living in Palestine.  Winston Churchill had been the First Lord of the Admiralty and then was made Minister of Munitions, a position that David Lloyd George had held until he was elected prime minister in 1916.  Meanwhile Herbert Samuel was Home Secretary (a Jew, who would become the first British High Commissioner of Palestine).  Dr. Weizmann leveraged all of the figurative currency and influence he had accrued, and on November 2, 1917, a letter was issued under the pen of British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour recognizing the right of the Jewish people to establish a home in what would become Israel.  And our Birthday Boy would go on to spend much more time on Zionism than on science.

You, gentle reader, probably expected a discussion of Dr. Weizmann’s high school career in Pinsk, where in addition to science he adopted an interest in Zionism.  While at the Polytechnic Institute of Darmstadt in Germany beginning in 1892, he earned a living teaching Hebrew, and so on.  But you know much of his Jewish history already.  Science played a part as well toward his eventual rise to first prime minister of Israel, and toward Israel becoming our Jewish land.