Bergmann, Ernst David

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(b. Karl-sruhe, Germany, 18 October 1903; d. Jerusalem, Israel, 6 April 1975)

organic chemistry, education, science policy in Israel.

Bergmann, a German-Jewish chemist, was forced out of his position in Berlin under Nazi laws and emigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1934 to become the first director of what was later the Weizmann Institute of Science. He subsequently aided the British scientific effort during World War II. He is best known for leading the development of science in the fledgling State of Israel, including the inauguration of its nuclear research program. Bergmann typified the close involvement of scientists in Israel with political and defense matters. His research interests in organic chemistry were extensive. He introduced German-style chemical research and teaching at the Weizmann Institute of Science and then at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Early Life in Berlin. Bergmann was born into a strongly Zionist-leaning German family. In 1908, his father, Rabbi Judah Bergmann, accepted a post in Berlin and moved there with his mother, Hedwig Rosenzweig Bergmann, and his brothers, Artur and Felix. Both brothers later held influential positions in Israel, the latter as a pharmacologist.

Ernst David studied chemistry at the University of Berlin, where in 1924 he began research for his doctoral degree under the supervision of Wilhelm Schlenk. His work involved investigations on polycyclic aromatic compounds, of great interest to the chemistry of synthetic dyestuffs and, increasingly, in cancer studies. In 1927, Bergmann was awarded his doctorate and in the following year was appointed Privatdozent(lecturer) at the university’s chemical institute. In 1928, he married the chemist Ottilie Blum, a research assistant in the institute. By then, his outstanding scientific capabilities were widely recognized. In 1929, chemistry Nobel Laureate Richard Will-stätter proposed that Bergmann become his successor to the chair of chemistry at the ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, or Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich; however, the more renowned Leopold Ruzicka was appointed instead. With Schlenk, Bergmann in 1932 published the first volume of a textbook on chemistry, Ausführliches Lehrbuch der Organischen Chemie, and was the leading candidate for a vacant chair at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. Following passage of the antiSemitic Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on 7 April 1933 under the Nazi regime, Bergmann was not appointed to the Berlin position. On the contrary, he was dismissed from his post as research assistant and lost his venia legendi—his right to teach at a German university.

Schlenk himself was reproached for remaining “alien to the [Nazi] movement” and for his contacts with Jews, which in some cases continued after 1933, including communication with Bergmann. Schlenk was forced to leave his post in Berlin and, in 1935, was transferred to Tübingen. He faced a difficult choice in 1939, when the manuscript for the second volume of the textbook written with Bergmann was ready. As he told Bergmann, he could either publish as sole author, since Bergmann’s name could not appear on the cover or withdraw the manuscript from publication altogether. Schlenk chose the former option, despite Bergmann’s strong protests.

The Daniel Sieff Institute. In 1933, Carl Neuberg, director of the Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biochemistry, recommended Bergmann to the Zionist leader and organic chemist and microbiologist Chaim Weizmann, who at that time was working in London at the Feather-stone Laboratories. Bergmann immediately moved to England to join Weizmann, whose reputation was based mainly on pure-strain fermentation studies, and especially his acetone process, which was important in the Allied war effort during 1914–1918. In 1933, Weizmann was in the process of establishing the Daniel Sieff Institute at Rehovot, in Mandate Palestine, after he became frustrated by differences with Albert Einstein over how the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, opened in 1925, was run, and also because of the poor quality of research at the university. He was looking for a head of the new Sieff Institute, dedicated to applied research, and offered Bergmann its directorship. Bergmann was also offered a post at Oxford by Sir Robert Robinson, which he declined in favor of Rehovot. The opportunity of participating in the scientific development of a Jewish homeland, despite the complete absence of facilities, held a stronger appeal to Bergmann than a position at a prestigious European university and the chance to be associated with Robinson, a world-renowned chemist. From London, Bergmann and Weizmann organized staff and equipment for Rehovot. On 1 January 1934, Bergmann arrived in Palestine, and soon after the institute was opened.

Research and Teaching. Among Bergmann’s main fields of research at Rehovot were reactions of metals with aromatic compounds (a continuation of his work with Schlenk), which in 1935 and 1936 led to joint publications with Chaim Weizmann, Felix Bergmann, and Ernst David’s wife, Ottilie Blum-Bergmann (who died in the mid-1930s). Another research area was the related arsenic-containing heterocyclic aromatic compounds, including analogs of dyestuffs such as methylene blue, and products originally used as chemical warfare agents during World War I, although when this work was published, the interest was probably in their pharmaceutical or pesticidal properties. Other fields were photochemistry and poly-cyclic aromatic compounds, again publishing with Weiz-mann (1938 and 1939) and with Felix and Ottilie (from 1937); syntheses of biochemical interest; and isolation and modification of natural products. The work on poly-cyclic compounds was, incidentally, also an extension of Weizmann’s own earlier studies in the field of synthetic dyestuff chemistry, particularly in connection with derivatives used in the manufacture of indanthrene vat dyes.

Wartime Research. In 1939, the commencement of World War II brought Bergmann back to London to work on war-related research projects for the Ministry of Supply at the Grosvenor Laboratories, where Weizmann was an advisor. At the Manchester Oil Refinery in Manchester, England, Bergmann studied a process suggested by Weizmann for making aromatic compounds—in particular, toluene for high octane aviation fuel—from straight chain hydrocarbons (olefins) by high-temperature cracking in the presence of a catalyst. This was known as the catarole process. It offered the potential for large-scale production of aromatic compounds and reactive aliphatics from petroleum. In 1942, Weizmann and Bergmann traveled to the United States, where Bergmann worked with Commercial Solvents, at Terre Haute, Indiana, on the conversion of agricultural products into isoprene, the building block for synthetic rubber. This fermentation process was not adopted, according to Weizmann, because the oil lobby convinced the U.S. government to adopt exclusively petroleum-based synthetic rubber processes. (By contrast, in Germany coal-derived synthetic rubber processes were developed based on acetylene chemistry, another of Bergmann’s interests.) Despite the setback, and possibly in part because of it, this and similar endeavors provided a thorough grounding in approaches to the supply of essential strategic materials that would be put to good use from 1946, when Bergmann returned to Palestine and the Daniel Sieff Institute. He also continued his research on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, including hydrocarbons with two linearly annellated rings. At Rehovot, young people from the Science Corps (HEMED) of the Haganah, the military organization that later became the nucleus of the Israel Defence Forces, worked closely under Bergmann’s guidance on weapons research.

Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University. The State of Israel was established in 1948, with Chaim Weizmann as its first president. One year later the Weizmann Institute of Science was founded (with the Daniel Sieff Institute becoming the Department of Organic Chemistry), and Bergmann was named as its scientific director. He began work on secret military projects and, significantly, grew close to David Ben-Gurion, Weizmann’s rival in the Zionist movement. Following on from his HEMED activities, Bergmann favored military-related work as a principal area of research at the institute. However, this met with strong opposition from Weizmann, despite the fact that he greatly admired Bergmann. Weizmann was adamant that he did not want the generals to decide on any aspect of the research policy at the Weizmann Institute, and he rejected any dependence on funding from the Ministry of Defence. It was mainly over these differences concerning the organization of national science, and Bergmann’s work as scientific advisor to Ben-Gurion, that the previous father-and-son relationship between Weizmann and Bergmann eventually soured. The rift between the two men was aggravated by personal problems in which Mrs. Weizmann and the woman who would in 1952 become Bergmann’s second wife, Hani Itin, were very much involved. In 1951, Bergmann left the Weiz-mann Institute and the following year was appointed professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where the Department of Organic Chemistry was divided into two sections, one now headed by Bergmann, the other by Max Frankel, who had emigrated from Austria in 1925. Bergmann spent the remainder of his scientific career at Hebrew University, where he also served with distinction as vice president.

Research in Israel. Bergmann’s research activities had a significant impact in Israel, particularly his studies on cancer and aromaticity at Hebrew University; his supervision of research at the Technion, in Haifa, in the early 1950s; and during the 1950s and 1960s, his investigations into organofluorine chemistry at the University of Tel Aviv and into applied science in general. His research interests included acetylene chemistry, which held out great promise in the late 1940s and early 1950s for the production of commercial chemicals, based on the work of J. Walter Reppe at IG Farben, and, increasingly, areas of biological chemistry. He also returned to what his colleague David Ginsberg called his “first love,” the study of polycyclic aromatic compounds, an endeavor that contributed to theoretical, physical, and organic chemistry; the chemistry of dyestuffs; and knowledge of biological activity, the latter emphasized in cancer studies carried out at both the Weiz-mann Institute and Hebrew University. During the 1960s, he also returned to the chemistry of insecticides. He authored or coauthored over five hundred scientific publications, as well as two books: The Chemistry of Acetylene and Related Compounds and Isomerism and Isomerization of Organic Compounds, both published in 1948. Important reviews included “Pentalene and Heptalene” in Non-benzenoid Aromatic Compounds and “The Michael Reaction” (co-author) in Organic Reactions, both published in 1959.

The Nuclear Program. While Bergmann helped science in Israel to become respected, his greatest contribution was, as Ephraim Katzir, chemist, molecular biologist, and later president of Israel, emphasized, not in science but mainly in politics and defense activities (Katzir, interview by Ute Deichmann, 27 May 1998). In Israel and the Bomb(1998), an analysis of the early history of Israel’s nuclear program, Avner Cohen stresses Bergmann’s decisive role in converting Ben-Gurion to the view that access to nuclear energy was essential for the survival and prosperity of Israel, since it could create unprecedented options for both civilian and military applications. Even at the end of the 1940s Bergmann believed that Israel should adopt a nuclear program, not only for military purposes but also to provide energy for the desalination of water. In 1952, Ben-Gurion founded the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) on Bergmann’s recommendation and with the backing of Shimon Peres, a leading Labour Party politician and director-general of the Ministry of Defence. Bergmann was appointed the IAEC’s first director. In common with Ben-Gurion, Bergmann was convinced that the tragic circumstances of the recent Nazi Holocaust fully justified Israel’s taking all steps to ensure its survival by becoming a nuclear power. Peres has cited Bergmann as saying, “I am convinced that the State of Israel needs a defense research program of its own so that we shall never again be as lambs led to the slaughter” (Cohen, 1998, pp. 15–16).

Bergmann’s wish to model Israel’s nuclear program on French lines—as state-sponsored, project-oriented big science aimed primarily at the production of nuclear materials—met with strong opposition from the nuclear physicists in the IAEC. To them, nuclear research and teaching, not production, had the highest priority, and they wanted the IAEC primarily to support and coordinate academic research. Moreover, they considered Bergmann much too optimistic. In addition, Bergmann’s authoritarian management style as chairman was highly resented, causing one of the IAEC’s scientists, Zvi Lipkin, later to describe it as reminiscent of a “Russian or Prussian regime” (Cohen, “Before the Beginning,” p. 130). Under Minister of Defence Pinhas Lavon, the physicists managed for several years to carry out nuclear research at the Weizmann Institute—independently of Bergmann’s influence—at least until the budget was cut. Only after Ben-Gurion returned to power in 1955, first as minister of defense and then as prime minister, did Bergmann’s and Peres’s influence once more become important. French assistance was deemed essential, and in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis of 1956, the French became very receptive to Israel’s nuclear needs and contributed essential expertise until the mid-1960s. At the end of the 1950s, Bergmann was instrumental in procuring heavy water for the nuclear program from Norway. He also played an important role in the development of Israel’s chemical and biological warfare capabilities that from 1952 came under the aegis of the Institute of Biological Research. This work was considered essential for defense prior to the establishment of a nuclear capability.

Bergmann the Teacher. Bergmann’s students, many colleagues, and politicians were impressed by his grasp of fundamental knowledge, his energy, and his talent for organization. Bergmann, in common with other scientists trained under the German system, brought with him a breadth of knowledge and tradition of thoroughness in teaching and research that has endured and influenced generations of chemists. This included long hours spent in the laboratory, combined with colloquia with the laboratory supervisor, who was frequently the professor himself. There was also the personal example set by the professor who visited the laboratory constantly, wearing his lab coat and even performing experiments. Ernst Bergmann would on occasion work overnight in the laboratory at Hebrew University, despite his many other commitments.

Chaim Gilon, professor of organic chemistry at Hebrew University, who was in close scientific contact with Bergmann, emphasized Bergmann’s great knowledge in all fields of chemistry, which he taught in nine lectures given during the same period of time. “His lectures were brilliant,” Gilon has said. “He was a very ambitious and a very capable man. Having an excellent memory, he could tell every student who asked him about organic syntheses the page number of the pertinent volume of a journal or book, which contained the answer” (Gilon, interview by Ute Deichmann, 14 December 1994).

According to Bergmann’s former student, Mordecai Rabinovitz, also a professor of organic chemistry at Hebrew University, Bergmann’s students sometimes had problems following lectures since, “while he was talking about one topic, he would already be drawing structural formulae for the next topic on the blackboard” (Rabinovitz, interview by Ute Deichmann and Anthony S. Travis, 4 December 2003). Joseph Klein, another professor of organic chemistry at Hebrew University, has recalled, “He was a good teacher for students who wanted to learn. His lectures were well prepared, but not interrupted by nice stories. He worked hard until the last day of his life” (Klein, interview by Ute Deichmann, 23 November 1994). Gilon emphasized Bergmann’s role in science policy:

He always saw the application side of science. Coming from a German origin, he never spent a wasted minute, and he embarked on many activities apart from his research. Thus he became scientific advisor to Ben Gurion, and it is due to Bergmann’s influence that science in Israel became highly respected and by that gained much more support financially than before. If Bergmann had concentrated his forces, he would presumably have achieved more in his own research. (Gilon, interview by Ute Deichmann, 14 December 1994)

Rabinovitz considers Bergmann a “lost star” for organic chemistry, because “as soon as he came to Israel, he dealt with many other things.… Bergmann was a man of vision” (Rabinovitz, interview by Ute Deichmann and Anthony S. Travis, 4 December 2003). The ability and readiness to look in many directions, political as well as scientific, reduced Bergmann’s focus on organic chemistry and increased his commitment to politics and defense.

Bergmann transferred to Israel from Germany not only his fields of research but also stereotypical German characteristics, such as punctuality and the placing of high demands on himself and his students. But, as Gilon has recalled, he also changed certain of his attitudes. Thus, he was able to combine his sense of order with Israeli improvisation, and though he did not become close to his students, he treated them in a friendly way. This was also the experience of Rabinovitz, who opined that Bergmann was, at least outside of politics, a real gentleman, despite being very authoritarian.

Ernst David Bergmann transformed the study of organic chemistry in Mandate Palestine and Israel and was responsible for its high international standing. After 1948, Bergmann also played an important political role in influencing Israeli science and military research policy for decades. Bergmann and another young scientist, the Hungarian-born Ladislaus Farkas, a physical chemist, who was also forced to emigrate from Germany, together contributed greatly to the emergence of world-class scientific research in Israel. This was possible because Israeli political leaders considered science a decisive basis for the intellectual and economic development of the country and—despite many problems due to the weak economy and military threats—provided the necessary freedom and support. Bergmann’s name is perpetuated through the Weizmann Institute’s Ernst David Bergmann Prize.



With Wilhelm Schlenk. Ausführliches Lehrbuch der Organischen Chemie. Vol. 1. Leipzig, Poland, and Vienna: Beuticke, 1932. This was originally planned as a three-volume textbook, of which only two volumes appeared.

The Chemistry of Acetylene and Related Compounds. New York: Interscience, 1948.

Isomerism and Isomerization of Organic Compounds. New York: Interscience, 1948.

With Chaim Weizmann, Herbert Steiner, and Max Sulzbacher. “Production of Aromatic Hydrocarbons from Petroleum.” Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry67 (March 1948): 114–118.

With David Ginsburg and Raphael Pappo. “The Michael Reaction.” In Organic Reactions. Vol. 10. New York: John Wiley, 1959, 199–555.

“Pentalene and Heptalene.” In Non-benzenoid Aromatic Compounds, edited by David Ginsberg. New York: Interscience, 1959, 141–169.


Clar, E. Polycyclic Hydrocarbons. London; New York: Academic Press, 1964.

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———.Israel and the Bomb. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Deichmann, Ute. “The Expulsion of Jewish Chemists and Biochemists from Academia in Nazi Germany.” Perspectives on Science 7 (1999): 1–86.

———, and Anthony S. Travis. “A German Influence on Science in Mandate Palestine and Israel: Chemistry and Biochemistry.” Israel Studies 9 (2004): 34–70.

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Ute Deichmann

Anthony S. Travis

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