The Incorrigible Optimist

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Scientist in the Service of Israel: The Life and Times of Ernst David Bergmann (1903-1975) William B. Jensen, Henry Fenichel, Milton Orchin. Hebrew University Magnes Press. 374 pages

This is the first ever biography of Ernst David Bergmann: It is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary man. Born in 1903 in Germany, the eldest child of a rabbi, Bergmann became the scientific director of the Daniel Sieff Research Institute (the precursor of the Weizmann Institute). Bergmann was known for his unbounded enthusiasm, especially when presented with an impossible challenge. On one occasion, Dr. Chaim Weizmann even expressed doubt as to whether he could fully rely on Bergmann’s judgment in certain practical matters outside of science. The reason for the doubt, Weizmann explained in a letter to a friend, was that Bergmann was such “an incorrigible optimist.”

Another prominent characteristic of Bergmann’s was his “almost inexhaustible energy and his propensity for 18-hour work days,” write the authors of Scientist in the Service of Israel: The Life and Times of Ernst David Bergmann (1903-1975), recently published by the Hebrew University Magnes Press. Even such an epic event as the proclamation of the establishment of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948, didn’t divert Bergmann’s attention from work for very long. That day, all the employees of the Sieff Institute gathered in the physics lab to listen to the proclamation on the radio. “We listened to the ‘Declaration of Independence’ and everybody went to work, furiously, passionately,” Bergmann reported in a letter to Chaim and Vera Weizmann. But a different account of what happened after the broadcast was given by Joseph Jaffe, then a young physicist at the Institute, in his memoirs: “Our gang dispersed immediately, everyone anxious to join friends and families and get down to serious celebrations.”



Inauguration of the Weizmann Institute, November 2, 1949. From right front: Labor Minister Golda Meir, unidentified, unidentified, Director of W.I.S. Prof. Ernst D. Bergmann, Chair of the Board Dewey D. Stone, Paula Ben-Gurion, Vera Weizmann, Lt. Col. David Arnon, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Hebrew University President Prof. Zelig Brodetsky, Knesset Speaker Joseph Shprinzak, Treasurer of the American Committee for W.I.S. Harry Levine

The authors of the book cite the discrepancy between the two versions as an example of “vintage Bergmann.” He apparently had a tendency to project his own level of commitment onto everyone: “Though there is little doubt that Bergmann’s version accurately represents his own behavior (indeed he would soon move into one of the guest apartments above the Clubhouse so that he could work at the Institute 24/7), one strongly suspects that Jaffe’s account is more accurate when it came to the behavior of others.”

Bergmann arriving in Israel with Chaim and Vera Weizmann, September 1948
In 1924, after studying at the University of Berlin for just under four years, Bergmann earned his doctorate in organic chemistry, summa cum laude, producing a thesis on “The Addition of Sodium to Carbon-Carbon Double Bonds.” Four years later, at the age of 25, on the basis of studies he had performed in stereochemistry, he was appointed Lecturer at the University and chief assistant to his former thesis adviser Prof. Wilhelm Schlenk. Bergmann was exceptionally prolific: Between 1928 and 1933, he published more than 72 papers and notes dealing with an incredible range of topics. These ranged from polymerization mechanisms to the isomerization and reactivity of unsaturated hydrocarbons, Grignard reactions, molecular rearrangements and the then relatively new technique of dipole-moment measurement for the purpose of structure determination.


Bergmann and Ben Gurion, year unknown

In April 1933, with the passing of the law that banned “non-Aryans” from government jobs in Germany, Bergmann was fired from his university post. Shortly afterwards, he accepted Chaim Weizmann’s offer to serve as scientific director of the Sieff Institute, then under construction in Rehovot. In January 1934, Bergmann arrived in Palestine to oversee the completion of the Institute, accompanied by his wife Ottilie, also an organic chemist, who was to join the Institute staff. The Bergmanns were in a unique minority: Of the 1,200 Jewish scientists who left Nazi Germany in 1933, less than 40 would ultimately settle in Palestine.

Bergmann relished his mission of building up science in Eretz-Israel and later in the State of Israel. In his autobiography, Weizmann wrote about him enthusiastically: “I did not learn until later that Bergmann was a Zionist and that he was the son of a rabbi, that he had received a sound Jewish education, was a Hebrew scholar and a great intellect, and that he lived and worked for Palestine and for Palestine alone.”
Bergmann and Aharon Katzir, year unknown
Even though directing the Institute must surely have demanded much of his energy, Bergmann continued to produce a steady stream of papers. These covered such a broad range of subjects in organic chemistry that his name never became associated with a single topic. In 1951, when Science magazine reported on countries with the highest rate of papers in organic chemistry relative to the general population, Bergmann wrote to the journal that the newly established Israel belonged at the top of that list. What he failed to mention was that the young country’s population was then very small, while the papers had been authored mainly by a single organic chemist: himself.

Even though Bergmann’s style of management occasionally verged on the autocratic, he was much liked at the Sieff and later the Weizmann Institute, where he worked until 1951. In an interview with the book’s authors, Shimon Peres said about him: “Women liked him. Everyone liked him. He was such a lovely man.”
What makes the book special is that one of its authors, Milton Orchin, knew Bergmann personally. In 1947-1948, as a young American chemist, he spent more than a year at the Sieff Institute, co-authoring two papers with Bergmann on the synthesis of aromatic compounds. In the preface, written at the age of 94 after having closed down his laboratory at the University of Cincinnati, Orchin states modestly: “Though we can hardly claim to have written the definitive biography of Bergmann, we hope that we have at least produced an adequate first attempt.”

Indeed, the attempt is more than adequate. Orchin and his co-authors, historian of chemistry William B. Jensen, who knows German, and physicist Henry Fenichel, who knows Hebrew, have produced an impressively well-researched book. Written in an engaging style, it aptly combines in-depth analysis with amusing anecdotes. More than the story of one man, it relates, through a tale of Bergmann’s life, an entire series of landmark events in Jewish history. It is a delightful, compelling and informative read.