Posts Tagged ‘fortune favours the prepared mind’

Fortune favours the well prepared, well-mannered, and hard-working

May 10, 2011

 How British horse chestnuts influenced the foundation of Israel.

There is a tale of a British politician in WWI  who had a policy of having tea with a wide range of people, and one day had tea with a  White Russian (refugee from destruction of Czarist Russia) Jew.  It happened that conversation turned to the problems of the military, as their main source of acetone –   an ingredient in cordite  for munitions – was lost through the war.  The refugee said ” I can help you there – I have a way to make acetone from horse-chestnuts”  .    The government invested in his method, and was able to make the shells needed to continue the war.  Later, grateful for his assistance, the British listened to his arguments in support of the creation of Israel.

This sounds like chance favouring the politician who was willing to meet odd people and listened to a refugee grumble , and the refugee who met the politician – but the reality is more complex.  The politician was Lloyd George, the “refugee” was Chaim Weizmann.

According to Wikipedia, “Weizmann studied chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Darmstadt, Germany, and University of Freiburg, Switzerland. In 1899, he was awarded a doctorate with honors. In 1901, he was appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Geneva and, in 1904, senior lecturer at the University of Manchester.”

Weizmann had become interested in the bacteriology of fermentation, and sent many years testing cultures for the ability to produce useful chemicals like butyl alcohol from fermenting maize.  This was complicated by commercial restrictions on other scientists sharing processes and cultures.  One of his cultures (later named ‘Clostridium aceto-butylicum Weizmann’) produced good amounts of butyl alcohol, but also fair amounts of acetone.

At the same time, he was strongly involved in the more militant branch of Zionism, weary of centuries of racism.  He was invited to tea with a middle-class, well-assimilated Jewish family, and there met another guest – a distinguished journalist. Through conversation with this gentleman he gained introductions to senior politicians, arguing for his cause.

In  1915, through a series of contacts suggested by scientific friends, and through demonstrations of the laboratory-level success of his bacillus and brewing and distillation techniques, he became one of three scientists separately funded to develop methods for manufacturing acetone.   He made modest requests for immediate funding,  accepting later payment in order to support the war effort, with a gentlemanly manner much appreciated by the Government.    He rapidly scaled up the process from kilogram to tonne output, and found ways to ferment carbohydrate sources other than maize.

The other two methods proved less successful, and, with the strict rationing required later in WWI, the ability  to ferment horse-chestnuts was a strong factor in Weizmann’s popularity: children would collect the nuts for shipping to the factory, “helping the war effort.”  Thus,the Government’s willingness to support early-stage science paid off, even though two in three did not pan out.  They prepared for later needs by seeking out appropriate science,  were courteous in dealing with the scientists, and  dealt with the bureaucratic labour involved – so fortune later favoured them.

And Weizmann?  From a great deal of hard work, a gentlemanly approach, and knowing influential people on more than a scientific basis; with a good public profile and with the British Government in his (moral) debt, as the head of the British Zionist Federation and later the World Zionist Organisation he dealt with British (and other)  politicians.    This took up a great deal of his time between the wars (WWI and WWII), while he continued his research, industrial production of fermentation products, and development of what became the Weizmann Institute of Science in what became Israel.

Weizmann became the first President of the new state of Israel in 1949.

Fortune favoured the well-prepared, well-mannered,  and hard-working.


This blog entry was made possible through talking with a friend who watched a documentary on the Atlantic, through Wikipedia, and through my paying an annual fee to have access, through a University library, to online versions of journal articles. In this case, particularly to J. Reinharz (1985) Science in the service of politics:the case of Chaim Weizmann during the First World War. English Historical Review Vol. 100, No. 396 (Jul., 1985): 572-603. doi: 10.1093/ehr/C.CCCXCVI.572: .  This is worth reading in its entirety.

The title derives from “Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.”  (In the fields of observation chance favoors only the prepared mind) : Louis Pasteur, Lecture, University of Lille (7 December 1854)

The topic here is a wider field than observational science, but I assert that the concept still applies.