The life of Esther Hellinger changed forever with the issuing of the 1917 Balfour Declaration: Then an 18-year-old student of botany at the University of London, she decided that one day she would move to the Land of Israel.
Born in London into a family of Jewish immigrants from Latvia, the fourth of nine children, Hellinger had professional goals that were unusual for a woman at the time. She wanted to specialize in plant diseases, particularly those caused by fungi, hoping that expertise in this area would enable her to help develop agriculture in the Jewish National Home. Her lecturer on this subject was skeptical, as she was to recall years later in autobiographical notes: “When I informed [him] of my aspirations regarding plant disease work in Palestine, he was quite blunt. ‘As a woman you stand no earthly chance,’ he said.”
Hellinger visited Eretz-Israel for the first time with a group of Jewish British students to attend the opening ceremony of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mt. Scopus, on April 1, 1925. “It was an unforgettable scene which thrilled me to the core,” she wrote later. In 1926, she was back to stay, and she spent five years conducting research on local plant diseases at the Jewish Agency’s Agricultural Experimental Station in Rehovot. One major project, sponsored by Britain’s Empire Marketing Board, focused on the decay of citrus fruits. At the same time, she prepared a thesis on fungal infection in fruit, which in 1931 earned her a Ph.D. from the University of London.
It was back in England in October 1932 that Hellinger first met Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who obtained for her a scholarship to receive training in areas of bacteriology particularly useful for Eretz-Israel. She spent more than a year in Europe, mainly in Switzerland, honing her skills in microscopy and microphotography, isolating various bacteria and gaining experience in the bacteriology of milk and soil at different institutions. “I feel now that I could be of use to our bee keepers in their disease troubles,” she wrote to Weizmann after spending two weeks in a bee disease laboratory. In another letter, she reported on her training at a facility specializing in Gruyere and Emmental cheeses, adding that “a certain amount of soft double-cream cheeses are made in Switzerland, but I must confess that I have tasted better in Palestine…”
In July 1933, Dr. Weizmann offered Hellinger the position of Chief Bacteriologist and Mycologist at the Daniel Sieff Research Institute about to open in Rehovot. “Nothing could please me better!” Hellinger promptly wrote back. At the end of March 1934, after a five-day trip by boat from Marseilles to Jaffa, she arrived in Rehovot just in time for the inauguration of the Sieff Institute on April 3. Its staff of 11 scientists included four women, an unusually high percentage for those days.
Old-timers remember Hellinger, a petite woman with curly hair, as modest, friendly and talkative; she knew Hebrew but preferred to speak English. To the sabras, she seemed typically British: she had perfect manners, spoke in understatements and never showed excitement.
Much of Hellinger’s early work at the Sieff Institute, aimed at boosting the chemical industry in Eretz-Israel, focused on new uses for the sugar-containing waste products of the dairy industry. In the late 1930s, she registered two patents: on improving chicken feed and on making use of milk whey by fermentation.
In the early 1940s, she twice earned what at the Sieff Institute was considered a special honor – co-authoring scientific papers with Chaim Weizmann, whom she called “The Chief.” Both papers elaborated on Weizmann’s famous fermentation method, which had been used to produce acetone from maize during World War I. Thanks to the new Sieff Institute research, a factory near Tel Aviv produced acetone and butyl alcohol, this time needed in World War II, by fermenting orange peel.
After the establishment of the State of Israel, Hellinger collaborated with scientists from the Research Council of Israel, who sought to revive the cultivation of flax, commonly grown in the area in antiquity. Hellinger helped them develop an improved method of flax retting – the process of separating flax fibers from the stem using bacteria – which for about a decade was applied at a factory in Kiryat Malachi.
Upon retiring from the Weizmann Institute in 1955, Hellinger, who never married, had no family in Israel and had trouble adjusting to the local climate, moved back to London to be close to her brothers and sisters. In a news item about her retirement, the journal Nature described her as “one of the band of enthusiastic scientists who have done so much for plant pathology and industrial mycology in Israel.”
While working at the Marks and Spencer’s Analytical Laboratory in London, Hellinger collaborated with a Weizmann Institute team that developed a wax coating to prevent the rotting of citrus fruit exported from Israel. When the method was commercialized, Hellinger – perhaps remembering the scholarship that got her started on her own career – used her share of the royalties to create a fund in support of students at Weizmann.
In 1978, at the meeting of the Weizmann Institute’s Board of Governors, Hellinger was presented with a scroll of appreciation, “in grateful and affectionate recognition of her unique personal dedication to this Institute, with which she has been so effectively and fruitfully associated ever since – at Dr. Chaim Weizmann’s request – she joined the pioneering scientific staff of the Daniel Sieff Research Institute.” She passed away in London four years later, at age 82.
Now, each year, the Weizmann Institute continues to award the Dr. Esther Hellinger Memorial Scholarship to a doctoral student enrolled in its Feinberg Graduate School.
We are grateful to the Weizmann Institute of Science Archives; the Weizmann Archives; Executive Director of Weizmann UK Sheridan Gould; Dr. Hellinger’s niece Anne Weyman and nephew Simon Cheifetz, both of London; Nahum Ben-Yehuda, CText ATI (Associate of the Textile Institute), of Bar-Ilan University; and all the others who assisted in the preparation of this article