JEWS IN CHEMISTRY
Modern chemistry is partly an outgrowth of the chemical and metallurgical crafts. The most sophisticated of these, the pyrotechnic arts of iron- and glass-making, were invented by the Akkadian progenitors of the Jews.1 Dye-making was another chemical craft pioneered by the Akkadians, which along with the pyroferric and pyrovitric crafts, was carried by their Jewish descendants into the Diaspora, and thereby spread to both the Eastern and Western worlds.2
Jews also played a significant role in the development of modern industrial chemistry. The rise of the German industrial giant BASF (Badische Anilin- und Soda Fabrik) was largely based on the leadership and chemical dye discoveries of Heinrich Caro,3 and on the process for fixation of atmospheric nitrogen discovered by Fritz Haber. The Haber-Bosch process (the industrial-scale version of the Haber process) for the high-pressure/high-temperature catalytic conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into nitrate compounds was not only the basis for the synthetic-fertilizer-driven Green Revolution, it was also the prototype for many other high-pressure catalytic processes, including modern industrial methods for producing methanol and polyethylene, hydrogenating coal, and performing the fractional distillation, or "hydrocracking," of petroleum.4 Because of its radical impact on world food production, the Haber-Bosch process has been called, with some justification, "the most important technical invention of the twentieth century."5 Without it, approximately forty percent of the world's population could not be fed.6 Other Jewish chemical industrialists have included Sir Alfred Mond, who was the principal founder of Britain's Imperial Chemical Industries, and Camille and Henry Dreyfus, who founded the British and American Celanese Corporations.
Jews were also very prominent among the developers of some of the most powerful analytical techniques used in modern chemistry, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy (I. I. Rabi, Felix Bloch, Erwin Hahn, Anatole Abragam, George Feher, Alexander Pines, and others), x-ray diffraction analysis of macromolecular structures (Michael Polanyi, Karl Weissenberg, Max Perutz, Rosalind Franklin, Herbert Hauptman, Jerome Karle, and others), radioisotopic tracer techniques (George de Hevesy, Friedrich Paneth, Rudolph Schoenheimer, Martin Kamen, Samuel Ruben, and others), density functional theory (Walter Kohn and Pierre Hohenberg), and molecular dynamics modeling (Berni Alder, Martin Karplus, and others). The latter two techniques are pillars of modern computational chemistry. Other branches of chemistry in which Jews played a pioneering role include quantum chemistry (Walter Heitler, Fritz London, Max Born, Robert Oppenheimer, Walter Kohn, and others), geochemistry (Victor Goldschmidt), biochemistry (Otto Warburg,7 Otto Meyerhof, Gustav Embden, Jacob Parnas, Sir Hans Krebs, Fritz Lipmann, Arthur Kornberg, and others), immunochemistry (Paul Ehrlich, Karl Landsteiner, Michael Heidelberger, Elvin Kabat, Felix Haurowitz, and others), and the chemistry of free radicals (Moses Gomberg and Morris Kharasch). Including Haber, seventeen of the scientists listed above were awarded Nobel Prizes for their work.
A 1997 survey of its readership by Chemical & Engineering News produced a list of the Top 75 Distinguished Contributors to the Chemical Enterprise over the previous 75 years; of these, approximately one-fourth were, or are Jewish. The combined membership of the divisions of chemistry and biochemistry of the US National Academy of Sciences is approximately one-third Jewish. The following links contain lists of prominent Jewish chemists and of Jewish recipients of several of the most prestigious awards in the field.
- Jewish Chemists
- Jewish Recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (19% of recipients)
- Jewish Recipients of the Wolf Prize in Chemistry (42% of recipients)
- Jewish Recipients of the Priestley Medal (24% of recipients)
- Jewish Recipients of the Welch Award in Chemistry (31% of recipients)
- Jewish Recipients of the Arthur C. Cope Award in Organic Chemistry (23% of recipients)
- Jewish Recipients of the Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry (29% of recipients)NOTES
1. See The Glassmakers: An Odyssey of the Jews, by Samuel Kurinsky (Hippocrene, New York, 1991).
2. See The Eighth Day: The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization, by Samuel Kurinsky (Aronson, Northvale, NJ and London, 1994).
3. See Heinrich Caro and the Creation of Modern Chemical Industry, by Carsten Reinhardt and Anthony Travis (Kluwer, Dordrecht and New York, 2001).
4. See http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/tcaw/10/i02/html/02chemch.html.
5. See Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, by Vaclav Smil (MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001, p. xiii).
6. Ibid., p. xv.
7. Jewish father, non-Jewish mother.
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