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Drugs and the War

08.04.2013

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In December 1939, the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in the town of Rehovot had just turned five years old. That month, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, Head of the Institute and President of the World Zionist Organization, wrote in a letter to Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty: “No one can foretell with any certainty the course of the war in the near future. If it spreads to South Eastern Europe, the Middle East can, I fear, hardly fail to become once more a major theatre of operations. If that is so, the potential value of Jewish resources in Palestine may suddenly become apparent even to those who have hitherto been raising obstacles…Preparation takes time, as you well know. I wished to begin it, both as regards our scientific and industrial contribution and our military effort, as soon as I received the Prime Minister’s reply to my letter sent on the outbreak of war.”

Among the contributions Weizmann suggested the citizens of Eretz-Israel might make to the Allies was the manufacture of medical supplies. Most of the drugs at that time were imported from Germany, and their supply was about to be cut off, while the first shoots of a modern pharmaceutical industry were taking root in Eretz Israel. Weizmann had initiated an experimental facility within the Sieff Institute for producing drugs in semi-commercial quantities.
 
The Sieff Institute, founded in 1934, had been established as “an Institute for agriculture and applied chemistry.” Industry, including the pharmaceutical industry, was listed as one of its three main areas of activity, the others being agriculture and basic research. In 1935, when he was serving his second term as president of the World Zionist Organization, Weizmann began working toward realizing his idea of developing the pharmaceutical industry in Eretz-Israel. This was of utmost importance to him: He even wanted his son, Benji, to focus his studies on pharmaceuticals and oranges.
 
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In a letter to his brother-in-law, Joseph Blumenfeld, in January 1936, Weizmann wrote: “I have been going into the question of building up a pharmaceutical industry in this country…But it is not this country alone that we have to consider. There is Syria, there is Egypt, and there are other Arab countries – the hinterland may be said to extend almost as far as India. A good firm established here – where we have the advantage of having a great number of good chemists on the spot – could, I have no doubt, develop a great market in these countries.”  
 
Dr. Benjamin Bloch, the administrative director of the Sieff Institute, was charged with planning a marketing strategy. In that original plan, the basic chemical compounds needed for producing the drugs would be made at the Institute, while a separate company would turn those compounds into the final products, as well as conducting clinical trials, attaining the relevant approvals and marketing. This was based on the model of “commercial units” in other research institutes of the day.


Laying the foundations


On April 14, 1939, the cornerstone of the Daniel Wolf Building was laid on the Sieff Institute campus. This building was a modern chemistry lab that would house the experimental pharmaceutical unit. Just a few months later WWII broke out, and various local interested parties, as well as the Turkish government, turned to the Sieff Institute staff to prepare medical compounds. Institute researchers geared up to prepare samples of a number of drug compounds; they sent their samples to Turkey, Syria, the Department of Health in Jerusalem and a commercial firm in London.

Bloch visited London in the summer of 1940. There he obtained a commitment to found a medical products company that would initially produce a limited number of drugs as a trial balloon. A contract was signed with Genatosan, Ltd., for collaboration in developing a pharmaceutical industry in Palestine and the Middle East.
 
Palestine Pharmaceutical Products, Ltd. (PPhP), was incorporated in September 3, 1941, and employed around a dozen scientists and staff. The plant included a unit for coating its tools and equipment in Bakelite so they could meet the purity standards for drug production. The drugs initially produced in the facility were the barbiturates Phanodorm and Evipan; Atebrine, an antimalarial and anti-inflammatory; Plasmoquin, another antimalarial drug; Novalgin, a fever-reducer and analgesic; Rivanol, an antiseptic; and Prontosil Rubrum, an antibacterial and disinfectant. At a certain stage, the company rented lab space in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv.
 
As the collaboration between PPhP and Genatosan quickly ran aground, Bloch was forced to seek new partners. In October 1942, an agreement was signed between the Daniel Sieff Research Institute, PPhP and J. Green in Cairo, Egypt.
 
trade catalogue
 

Success and hardship


In July 1944, Lord Melchett wrote to Oliver Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies: “In case it has not been brought to your attention I think you would be interested to have a look at the 3rd volume of the Government of Palestine Trade Catalogue. The development of the Pharmaceutical Industry which this catalogue shows is really very remarkable and came as quite a surprise to me…there is no reason to suppose that Palestine will not have a considerable future in the light and specialized industries of the World and the Middle East.”

Weizmann, in November of that same year, wrote to his colleague Ernst David Bergmann, the first scientific director of the Sieff Institute who was then engaged in the war effort, and expressed his satisfaction with the quality of the drugs produced by PPhP. Weizmann’s 70th birthday also fell in November 1944, and the PPhP staff honored him with a listing in the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael Golden Book – bought with a donation of 25 Israeli lira.

PPhP continued to operate under difficult conditions during the war years and its output even increased. Yet the unreliability of supplies of raw materials and imported drugs, combined with the vagaries of the relationships between the governing bodies in pre-state Palestine and the local industries had their effects: The company’s financial situation was shaky and bankruptcy was a real threat. Again and again, loan extensions were requested and debts refinanced; the fear was that closing the company would be a mortal blow to the young pharmaceutical industry in Eretz-Israel.
 
 
Weizmann himself believed that PPhP must keep its head above water, despite the financial losses. At the war’s end, when imports resumed, the company’s management decided to pursue a merger with a larger company in the name of efficiency.
 
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Changes of ownership, ties to the past


A buyer was found in June 1947: Nahum Ortenburg, a Tel Aviv businessman and one of the founders of Chemipal, a distributor for pharmacies. The manufacturing facilities moved lock, stock and barrel to Ramat Gan, although the Sieff Institute (soon to be renamed the Weizmann Institute) would continue several avenues of drug development research. In 1962, PPhP was acquired by Kibbutz Ma’abarot, which made the investment as a way to augment its income from agriculture and provide occupation for older kibbutz members. The manufacturing facilities were moved from Ramat Gan to the kibbutz in 1967, and in 1973 the name was changed to Trima, a Hebrew acronym for Israel Pharmaceutical Products, Maabarot, Ltd.

Today, the company manufactures a wide range of drugs for the Israeli and international markets, and it also imports pharmaceuticals into Israel. Around 8-9% of its profits are invested in research and development of generic drugs, and the factory is on the verge of expansion. Its founders, however, have not been forgotten. A modest room on Kibbutz Ma’abarot houses a permanent display on the early days of the company.
 
Thanks to the Weizmann Archives, Yad Weizmann and Raanan Reshef.
 
 

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