Jew of the Week: Joachim Gans

First Jew (and Scientist) in America

Illustration of Joachim Gans and Thomas Hariot in America’s First Science Lab (Credit: National Park Service)

Joachim Chaim Gans (later known as Dougham or Yougham Gannes) was born in the thriving Jewish community of 16th-century Prague, then the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Nothing is known of his early life. Historical records show that Gans was invited to England in 1581 to demonstrate his mining and smelting techniques. Gans had invented a new, cheaper method for purifying copper, reducing the length of the process from sixteen or eighteen weeks to just four. He also developed new ways of producing sulfuric acid, vitriol, and other compounds, most notably saltpeter (for gunpowder). “Master Yougham” was soon a respected scientist in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. When Sir Walter Raleigh was given a royal charter to explore the New World in 1584, he hired Gans as the expedition’s chief metallurgist. Gans’ primary objective was discovering valuable metals in the New World, and to determine whether further exploration and settlement was worthwhile. Gans set forth on the voyage, and in 1585, was one of the founders of Roanoke, England’s first colony in America. Amazingly, archaeologists have uncovered Gans’ original laboratory, filled with mining tools and scientific instruments. His team (together with Thomas Hariot) discovered many new plants, mapped the surrounding landscape, and even identified sassafras as a treatment for syphilis. Most importantly, Gans determined that the New World contains ample amounts of iron and copper, and perhaps silver and gold, too, convincing the queen that the continent was worth investing in. Gans himself is credited with being the first Jew to set foot in North America, as well as its first technologist or materials scientist. His lab has been called “America’s First Science Center” and “the Birthplace of American Science”. Unfortunately, the first colony didn’t last long, and 104 of the original 108 settlers, including Gans, returned to England a year later. Gans settled in Bristol and continued his work for the Royal Mining Company. When it became known that he spoke Hebrew and Yiddish, the town reverend asked Gans if he denied “Jesus Christ to be the son of God.” Gans replied: “What needeth the almighty God to have a son? Is He not almighty?” Gans was subsequently arrested for blasphemy. He was sent to London to be tried by the Queen’s Privy Council. What happened after this is unclear. There are no further records of Gans. Many historians hold that he was spared the death penalty because of his tremendous contributions to England, and was instead deported. There is mention of a “Joachim Gantz” buying a large estate 80 kilometres north of Prague in 1596, not far from a mine. It is quite likely that he lived out the rest of his life quietly in his homeland. Scholars believe Joachim Gans is the basis for the character Joabin, the wise scientist and “good Jew” of Sir Francis Bacon’s famous 1627 novel New Atlantis. Last Friday, the state of North Carolina (where Roanoke was located) officially honoured Gans in a ceremony, and will soon erect a commemorative highway marker for him near Fort Raleigh.

Did You Know These People are Jewish?

Words of the Week

Happiness is not a life without pain, but rather a life in which the pain is traded for a worthy price.
– Orson Scott Card

Jews of the Week: Sydney Pollack and Bruce Geller

Mission: Impossible

Bruce Geller

Baruch Bruce Geller (1930-1978) was born in New York City. Although he studied psychology at Yale University, he was far more interested in theatre, and ended up working as a screenwriter. Finding little success in New York, he moved to Hollywood and worked on a number of television shows. In 1965, Geller had an idea for a new secret agent thriller TV show, and created Mission: Impossible. The show ran from 1966 to 1973, with Geller as producer, writer, and director. The hit series went on to win 8 Emmy Awards, including two for Geller as producer and as writer. The show was resurrected in 1988 for another couple of seasons. (Its extremely popular theme song was written by former Jew of the Week Lalo Schifrin.)

Sydney Pollack

In the early 1990s, Sydney Irwin Pollack (1934-2008) began working on a film adaptation of Mission: Impossible. Starring Tom Cruise, the movie became a huge hit, and spawned five sequels, become one of the highest-grossing film franchises of all time, and earning over $2.7 billion, so far. (The latest installment of the film series, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, opens tomorrow.) Pollack was born in Indiana to Russian-Jewish immigrants. After finishing high school, he moved to New York City and studied acting. Pollack served two years in the armed forces, then returned to theatre as a stage assistant. He moved to Hollywood in 1960 to coach child actors, and slowly shifted from acting to directing. Pollack first worked on television shows, then made the jump to feature films, and was hugely successful right from the start. His films went on to earn 48 nominations and 11 wins at the Oscars. Pollack eventually went back to acting, and appeared in numerous films and TV shows. He died of cancer in 2008. Both Pollack and Geller were avid pilots, and enjoyed flying their Cessnas. Sadly, Geller’s life was cut short when his plane crashed in 1978.

Tu b’Av Begins Tonight – Chag Sameach!

Why Tu b’Av Is More Important than Yom Kippur

Words of the Week

I’ve lived through Israel’s entire 70-year history and I believe it is one of the most remarkable countries in the world.
– Warren Buffett

Steven Hill in the lead role of the 1966 pilot episode of Mission: Impossible, and Tom Cruise in the lead role of the 1996 film, together with the film’s most famous (and oft-spoofed) scene.