I Owe My Life to the Weizmann Institute of Science

Former President, Institute Professor Michael Sela, on the inauguration of the auditorium on that bears his name on the Weizmann Institute of Science campus

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The Michael Sela Auditorium was inaugurated yesterday (November 10), in honor of the former Weizmann Institute of Science President. The official opening took place during the 71st International Board events, and Prof. Sela was on hand to give this speech:

I’ve been working for the last seventy years at the Weizmann Institute and I would like to tell you that in whatever I did scientifically or in administration, I owe much more to the Institute than anything I could have done for the Weizmann Institute. The purpose of this speech is to stress how much I owe my life to the Weizmann Institute of Science.

My first steps in Israel were studying at the Hebrew University, then still on Mount Scopus. After I finished my studies on Mount Scopus, I heard in Tel Aviv about a scientific meeting at the Sieff Institute. I took a bus to Rehovot on June 3rd 1946. Little did I know that thus I attended the cornerstone of the Weizmann Institute in the presence of Dr. Weizmann and many famous scientists, including Dr. Pekeris who joined the institute and built the WEIZAC ‒ one of the first computers worldwide.

After spending some time smuggling Jews from Austria to Italy, and after Israel became a state, spending a couple of years as a commercial secretary in our legation, not yet embassy, in Prague, which was our main arms supplier during our War of Independence.

Then, at long last, I reached the Weizmann Institute in August 1950 to begin with on a short term task for Ephraim Katchalski who only later became Ephraim Katzir, and the purpose was to find out how to dye cotton as if it were wool.

Here I must say, I was born in the courtyard of a textile factory. I knew at the age of twelve or thirteen how to spin and how to weave, so it was a beginning close to what I thought at that time I should either study and research ‒ on dyes, how to dye things, or on polymers, on artificial threads ‒ and I didn’t know that I would end up spending almost all my life on polymers of amino-acids, the long chains of the building blocks of proteins. So in some sense, what I had thought in the beginning is what I ended up studying all my life.  

I continued working on a PhD with Ephraim Katchalski and then continued in the Weizmann Insititute. For the first synthetic antigen, I received an Israel Prize in 1959, when I was thirty five years old.

Later I spent ten years as president of the Weizmann Institute. During those years I also went many places, like Bloomington Indiana, but twice at Harvard, once in Berkeley, at M.I.T. and I also gave a one year course in Paris at the College de France.

When I was approximately forty years old I was offered professorships with tenure from Berkeley and from Harvard Medical School. I answered that I’m sure that I will be sufficiently old to regret that I said no, but I said no. I can tell you now at the age of ninety five that I’m still not sorry that I refused.

I hope this auditorium will be of great use, for the science but also for culture

I’m intentionally not speaking about the drug against multiple sclerosis on which my main collaborator was Ruth Arnon who was, by the way, my first PhD student, and we continued to work on and off for the next sixty years.

At this moment I must say how deeply moved I am by the notion that this auditorium is called after me. Here I must stress that from my point of view the only person who took care that it looks the way it does ‒ which is unbelievably beautiful ‒ is Sara Sela, because Sara has been the heart and brain of this entire project.

I want also to mention my first wife Margalit who died at the early age of forty-nine, and who worked as Meir Weisgal’s secretary and then as secretary to the Board and many other activities. She’s the mother of my daughters Irit and Orlee, while Sara is the mother of my youngest, Tamar, who by now has also given me three grandchildren.

I hope this auditorium will be of great use, for the science but also for culture and with these words I want to thank everyone who participated in creating this beautiful thing, the architect Erez Ella, and the exquisite team at the Weizmann Institute led by Alon Weingarten.

My thanks go to our president, Daniel Zajfman, not only for this beautiful auditorium but also for the wonderful things he has done for the Weizmann Institute in the last thirteen years. I also want to give my best wishes to Alon Chen who will be our next president.

I had two mentors in research, Ephraim Katchalski Katzir and Chris Anfinsen. I spent several times a year or a year-and-a-half at the National Institutes of Health, where I had visited and worked with Chris Anfinsen. Actually these two mentors became my closest friends and because of me, Chris Anfinsen became a close friend of the Institute and for many years the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee, which he had to give up when I became president so there wouldn’t be too much communality.

Besides all the work, I must stress the uniqueness of the Weizmann, of the camaraderie, of the friendships, of the fun, of the great get-togethers for a drink and for talks, and usually for a lot of science.

Another thing which is special to the Weizmann are the gardens, the whole atmosphere around them which makes it so pleasant and silent except for the chatter of the children and grandchildren including my own children who grew up in the Institute.

From the depth of my heart, I would like to thank my unique wife Sara for the incredible amount of work she invested in making this hall so beautiful, and I want to end this as I started: My debt to Weizmann Institute is infinite.