Terre Haute Living — March/April
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Terre Haute And WWI
Kiel Majewski

Almost the first words from a young energetic statesman named Winston Churchill to Chaim Weizmann were “Well, Dr. Weizmann, we need thirty thousand tons of acetone.Can you make it?”

In 1936, the American humorist and essayist Fred C. Kelly authored a
book called One Thing Leads to Another, about the former Commercial
Solvents Corporation of Terre Haute. The title of the book hints at
the concept of synchronicity, that strange and sometimes imperceptible
force of life that weaves together seemingly disparate elements of
our world into one magical chain of cause and effect.

Indeed, if the story of Commercial Solvents were made into a movie, the
main character might be a multi-talented Jewish genius named Chaim Weizmann,
whose sidekick was a microbe. Together, man and microbe would rise
from obscurity to help the Allies win World War I, and their final act would
be the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. In the middle
of the story would be a town in America’s heartland, known for its breweries
and situated on the Wabash River.

If the name Chaim Weizmann doesn’t ring a bell for you, here’s a clue:
He’s ranked No. 62 in Michael Shapiro’s The Jewish 100: A Ranking of the
Most Influential Jews of All Time. Some of the other figures on that list are
guys named Jesus, Moses, and Einstein.

Weizmann was born in the townlet of Motol in 1874. Motol, now situated
in Belarus, was at that time considered part of the Russian Empire. Chaim
(pronounced HYME, rhymes with “time”) described it as “situated in one of
the darkest and most forlorn corners of the Pale of Settlement, that prison
house created by czarist Russia for the largest part of its Jewish population.”

Indeed, life in the Pale (derived from the Latin palus, meaning “stake,” or
demarcation line) was hard. This was the area famously depicted in the musical
Fiddler on the Roof, where Jews congregated in shtetls and banded together
to survive the brutal geographic and socioeconomic conditions.
While shtetl life has sometimes been romanticized in literature in art, it was
not an enviable setting. An English diplomat described the conditions in one
shtetl in 1902:

The walls of the houses were blistered and rotting, as if poisoned by the
pestilent atmosphere within. Two and three families would be found in one
miserable room or cellar rented at 45 rubles a year…During my walks through
the ghetto I was surrounded by a crowd of gaunt, curious, anxious faces –
sad, careworn, hungry-looking people. Many openly begged alms. Some had
trifles for sale. Others seemed to spend most of their time in the synagogue
reading and rocking themselves into oblivion of their troubles.

Chaim was one of 15 children. On a budget equating 250-300 dollars per
year, the Weizmann family was considered well off in Motol. Though kids
today complain that there’s nothing to do in their hometowns, there was no
railway, no paved road, and no post office within 20 miles of Motol. The Jewish
inhabitants of the shtetls were eventually wiped out during the Holocaust,
but even before then, they were frequently victims of pogroms.

According to Weizmann, the remote conditions and brutal oppression of
their Russian overlords “deepened the consciousness of exile in these scattered
communities, which were held together by a common destiny and
common dreams.” In the shtetls was born the idea of Zionism – the political
movement for Jewish self-determination and a homeland.

In a testament to human ingenuity and tenacity, Weizmann transcended
his circumstances to become a Founding Father of Zionism and the State of
Israel. In honor of his efforts, he was appointed the first President of Israel in 1949. But his culmination as a venerated patriarch of modern Israel was in
large part hitched to the British government’s interest in a grain-munching
microbe.

In May 1915, during World War I, the British military was in crisis. It was
experiencing a critical lack of the organic compound acetone. Acetone was
used to make cordite, which propelled British munitions during the war. At
that time, acetone took six months to produce through the distillation of
wood and was heavily dependent on supply from Austria and the United
States. As the intensity of the war increased, and with access to Austria cut
off, the British government was desperate for new methods to produce acetone.

By this time, Weizmann had worked his way from the nether regions of
the Russian Empire to the universities of England as an accomplished
chemist. By day, Dr. Weizmann was a brilliant scientist specializing in fermentation,by night a ceaseless Zionist leader. During World War I, these
two worlds merged.

Some yearsearlier, while trying to synthesize rubber, Weizmann had accidentally discovered a fermentation process that produced pure acetone and butyl alcohol. His colleague advised him to pour the stuff down the sink.

“I retorted that no pure chemical is useless or ought to be thrown away,” Weizmann wrote in his autobiography Trial and Error. Weizmann continued to develop the process and had succeeded in producing about half a liter of acetone at a time in his laboratory. Weizmann was not interested in using the process for monetary gain, but applied for and received a British patent in 1915 at the behest of his colleagues.

In 1916, during Britain’s acetone shortage, Weizmann was summoned to meet with the First Lord of the Admiralty -- a young energetic statesman named Winston Churchill. According to Weizmann, almost his first words were, “Well, Dr. Weizmann, we need thirty thousand tons of acetone.Can you make it?”

Weizmann was stunned at the request but concluded, “If I were somehow able to produce a ton of acetone, I would be able to multiply that by any factor you chose. Once the bacteriology of the process is established, it is only a question of brewing. I must get hold of a brewing engineer from one of the big distilleries, and we will set about the preliminary task.”

“I was given carte blanche by Mr. Churchill and the department, and I took upon myself a task which was to tax all my energies for the next two years, and which was to have consequences which I did not then foresee,” Weizmann wrote.

After many experiments, Weizmann found, on an ear of corn, the microbe he needed. He called the bacteriaClostridium acetobutylicum Weizmann, nicknamed bacillus B-Y (B for bacillus, Y for Weizmann). According to Weizmann biographer Norman Rose, “When turned loose on a mash of corn, bacillus B-Y caused it to ferment rapidly, producing a solution that contained butanol, acetone, and minor quantities of ethyl alcohol…These solvents could then be separated in pure form by a relatively simple process of distillation.”

Britain tried to run the fermentation process on an industrial scale at various plants around the United Kingdom, to no avail due to grain shortages.When the United States entered the war in 1917, Britain decided to try the process where the corn was plentiful and the distilleries were in full effect. The United States Air Service and the British War Mission purchased the Commercial and Majestic whiskey distilleries on the Wabash River in Terre Haute and adapted them for acetone production by the Weizmann process. According to Frances Hughes of the Terre Haute Spectator, between May of 1918 and Armistice Day 1.5 million gallons of acetone were produced for the war effort in Terre Haute.

Weizmann received a United States patent for his process in 1919, which he transferred to the recently- incorporated Commercial Solvents Corporation for royalties.In retrospect, Weizmann might have been able to leverage his patent for much greater sums of money, but he was focused in an immediate sense on the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. While precise accounts of Weizmann’s monetary rewards are unclear, he lived comfortably and was able to finance his Zionist activities from the royalties he received.

Perhaps most importantly to Weizmann and Zionism, his contributions to the British war effort put him in contact with the most important British diplomats of the time. Weizmann utilized his newfound fame to advance the political aims of Zionism. Weizmann impressed Lord Arthur Balfour, a Prime Minister and later Foreign Secretary of the UK, and successfully lobbied him to issue the landmark “Balfour Declaration” of November 2, 1917.The declaration stated, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facili-tate the achievement of this object.”

The declaration was seen as the charter of the Zionist movement. In his autobiography, Weizmann wrote of the declaration, “It is not easy to recapture, at this distance, the spirit of elation which attended its issuance – a spirit shared by non-Jews and Jews alike.” Together with Balfour, US President Woodrow Wilson, and other Zionists, Weizmann set into motion the political maneuvers which would establish the state of Israel in 1948.

Weizmann served twice as president of the World Zionist Organization, and represented a particular school of thought within Zionism. He clashed with other leaders of the movement like Theodor Herzl and Louis Brandeis. Weizmann wrote, “I could not agree with Herzl that the Judennot, the tragedy of Jewish homelessness, persecution, and poverty, was sufficient to account for the Zionist movement, and was capable of supplying the necessary motive power for the creation of the Jewish homeland.”

Rather than a negative purpose for the establishment of Jewish homeland centered on sheltering Jews worldwide from persistent anti- Semitism, Weizmann envisioned a positive purpose for Israel, one centered on full creative and intellectual expression for Jews and powered by scientific innovation. He dreamed of a Jewish university in Jerusalem, and succeeded in founding the Hebrew University in 1925. Weizmann chaired the university’s first Board of Governors, which also included men such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber, and Ahad Ha’am. Today, some 24,000 people study at the Hebrew University.

Weizmann also established a scientific institute in the Israeli city of Rehovot.
Today, the Weizmann Institute of Science is a major research institute which has developed several Nobel Prize winners.Weizmann died in 1952.

Commercial Solvents became a subsidiary of International Mineral and Chemical Corporation in 1975. In 1987, it became Pittman-Moore, which was bought out by Schering Plough Animal Health in 1998. The plant was permanently shut down on January 28, 2000.
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