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UC Emeriti Write Biography of Founder of Israel’s Nuclear Energy Program

Three University of Cincinnati faculty, two from chemistry and one from physics, have published the first book-length biography of noted Israeli scientist, Ernst David Bergmann.

Date: 3/1/2012 12:00:00 AM
By: Greg Hand
Phone: (513) 556-1822

UC ingot   Ernst David Bergmann, a noted Israeli scientist widely considered to be the founder of Israel’s nuclear program, has never been the subject of a full-length biography. Three University of Cincinnati professors emeriti – Milton Orchin, Henry Fenichel and William B. Jensen – have just published the first book-length biography of this noted Israeli scientist. Their book, Scientist in The Service of Israel: The Life and Times of Ernst David Bergmann, (1903-75), was just published by The Hebrew University Magnes Press Ltd.

Bergmann was born in Germany in 1903, the son of a prominent Berlin Rabbi. He fled Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Turning down a position at Oxford, he chose instead to immigrate to Palestine where, first as head of the Sieff Institute and later of the Weizmann Institute, he became, a close friend and scientific collaborator of Chaim Weizmann and privy to Weizmann’s dream of providing Israel with a viable biochemical technology based on renewable plant resources rather than on either coal or oil.

William B. Jensen, Henry Fenichel and Milton Orchin
Co-authors William B. Jensen, Henry Fenichel and Milton Orchin

The book also describes Bergmann’s tragic falling out with Weizmann over the role of science in defense research, leading to his subsequent association with David Ben-Gurion as both his personal science advisor and as head of scientific research for the Israeli Defense Ministry. For the last 23 years of his life Bergmann also served as professor of organic chemistry at the Hebrew University, where he trained a generation of Israeli chemists, as well as playing a key role in the organization of virtually every aspect of the present-day Israeli scientific community.

All three authors are emeritus faculty members of the University of Cincinnati.

Orchin is distinguished service professor of chemistry, who first met Bergmann in 1947. He was present to witness the birth of Israel first-hand and to personally meet both Ben-Gurion and Weizmann.

Jensen is an award-winning historian of chemistry and curator of the Oesper Collections of the History of Chemistry.

Fenichel is an emeritus professor of physics and a holocaust survivor who received his early education in Israel.

Each one of the authors made distinct contributions to the effort, Fenichel said. 

“Milt Orchin provided the inspiration to the project,” Fenichel said. “He was a Guggenheim Fellow at the Sieff Institute (now The Weizmann Institute) back in 1947 and worked with Bergmann, who was the scientific director of the institute. He also has extensive correspondence with former colleagues and students of Bergmann, as well as surviving family members.”

Jensen, he said, took on the task of writing of the text, making use of the extensive resources of UC’s Oesper Collections in the History of Chemistry.

“My role was essentially that of the field researcher,” Fenichel said. “During three trips to Israel, I, with the assistance of my wife Diana, interviewed former colleagues and students as well as the current President of Israel, Shimon Peres and former President Ephraim Katzir.  I also conducted extensive archival research at various institutions in Israel.”

In a review of the book, Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann wrote “Scientist in the Service of Israel is so much more than the very much needed biography of the chemist who played a pivotal role in Israel’s still veiled atomic weapon program. Readable and meticulously researched, this book is also a story of how science, politics, and personal life intertwined in mid-20th century. Good chemistry, the great chemists of the century, make an appearance on every page. And the special exile of German Jews, and the perilous days of early Israel are beautifully evoked in this excellent personal and scientific biography.”

In a comment on the book, Israel President Shimon Peres wrote that Bergmann’s “voice and achievements will echo not only in our generation, but … in future generations too.”

The publisher of Scientist in the Service of Israel is Magnes Press, the academic press at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel.

The table of contents and preface to the book are posted online at the Magnes Press website.