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A magnetic connection

Miel de Botton, from soulful music to heartfelt philanthropy

People behind the science

Date: November 11, 2020

At the nexus between music, art, and science lies creativity, says Miel de Botton. This is exactly the commonality that excites the London-based singer-songwriter, philanthropist, psychologist, and art collector, and has led her to explore and nurture a love in all three directions.

While it was her father, Gilbert de Botton, who instilled in her a love of music, art, and science—and a special connection to the Weizmann Institute—Miel hasn’t merely followed his example but has advanced into new frontiers, personally, professionally, and philanthropically. Today, she is a much-loved musical artist with a series of albums under her belt, a mother of two, an avid art collector, and a donor to and participant in a long list of organizations and institutions including the Tate Gallery, the Royal Academy of the Arts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus and the Jerusalem  Foundation.

Her relationship with the Weizmann Institute and Israel is a unique one, and she has given generously to the Institute throughout the years to areas that are close to her heart. She received an honorary PhD in 2015. After the start of the coronavirus pandemic, she made a major gift to the Weizmann Coronavirus Response Fund, specifically to COVID-19 research involving sophisticated protein-profiling techniques in the de Botton Institute for Protein Profiling. She established the de Botton Institute in 2014 as one of the pillars of the Nancy and Stephen Grand Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine on campus.

The de Botton Institute was part of the early national effort to produce tests for the coronavirus, and now its scientists, in partnership with the Grand Center, are working to understand how the immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2 infection, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. Miel’s latest gift will support a series of research efforts at the de Botton Institute, including sequencing antibodies, testing favorable and unfavorable immune system responses to the virus, and identifying novel viral proteins that replicate during infection.

“It was obvious to me that if there is one institution that would make progress on this virus to help solve the pandemic, it would be Weizmann,” says Miel. “Knowing that some very important work is already happening at the de Botton Institute sealed the deal” in determining to give to the Coronavirus Response Fund.

“In large part because of the infrastructure and expertise in the de Botton Institute, we were able to partner with the Ministry of Health and the National Security Council to vastly increase the number of coronavirus tests conducted in Israel in the first stages of the pandemic, and make the tests more efficient and less risky for those administering them,” says Prof. Robert Fluhr, Head of the Grand Center.

Among her other gifts throughout the years, Miel also established the de Botton Center for Marine Science in 2013, headed by Prof. Ilan Koren, reflecting her deep interest in the environment. Research in the center has led to key insights about the health of the oceans, and contributed to a growing body of work on campus in the field and burgeoning expertise in ocean and climate studies.

An inspiring legacy

Born and raised in Zurich, Miel and her younger brother Alain, a philosopher and prolific writer, had a colorful, dynamic childhood. Their parents, Gilbert and Jaqueline, ensured their children were surrounded by interesting people of all kinds, and their education was enriched by travel and the arts. While Miel’s upbringing was a European one, “we were always keenly aware and appreciative of my father’s roots in Egypt and his special attachment to Israel,” remarks Miel. That story, she says, starts with her paternal grandmother, Yolande Harmer.

Harmer worked in Egypt as an undercover agent for Israel leading up to the birth of the State, in 1948, and for several years afterwards. Recruited by Moshe Sharett, the second Prime Minister of Israel, for her contacts in elite and royal circles in Cairo and Alexandria, Yolande passed key information to Israel at a critical time. Her first marriage, to Jacques de Botton, Gilbert’s father, was short-lived, and she invested herself fully in her son and her work on behalf of Israel.

After Yolande was arrested and jailed in the summer after Israel’s independence, she was released and left with Gilbert for Paris, and later—surprisingly, Gilbert recalls in a documentary about his mother—they went back to Egypt, where she continued her spy work initially unhindered. As her presence in Egypt became increasingly circumspect, she soon had no choice but to leave for Israel. Mother and son settled in Jerusalem. Gilbert received his bachelor’s degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and went on to New York where he received a master’s degree from Columbia University. Yolande passed away in 1959.

“I never knew my grandmother, but my father told me stories that inspired and enthralled me,” says Miel, whose middle name is Yolande. Their physical resemblance, she admits, is striking.

Gilbert de Botton joined the investment group of the Zilkha banking family, another Jewish family with roots in the Middle East. He later joined the Rothschild Bank in Switzerland and moved to London, where he founded Global Asset Management (GAM), which he grew into a diverse and highly successful investment management firm and which he sold to UBS in 1999.

The engine for GAM’s success “was Gilbert’s incredibly curious and creative mind,” says Prof. Haim Harari, former Weizmann Institute President who knew Gilbert well. Fluent in nine languages and having moved repeatedly throughout his life, “he was a man of the world who never felt at home in any country and yet he became a success in whatever country he stepped foot in.”

Prof. Harari spent time with Gilbert and his second wife, Janet Wolfson, in their London home—a marriage that, serendipitously, brought together two families that were deeply engaged in the Weizmann Institute and in Israel. The highly philanthropic Wolfson family and its Wolfson Charitable Trust have given to Weizmann throughout the decades. “Sitting at the dinner table with Gilbert and Janet was to be surrounded by the most extraordinary artwork, while the discussion revolved around a love of Israel and Weizmann,” recalls Prof. Harari.

Gilbert, together with the late Maurice Dwek, also a Swiss financier, developed a nucleus of support (and in their case, also offered investment guidance) for the Weizmann Institute in Europe in the 1990s, when Prof. Harari was President. Dwek and de Botton proposed the concept of a venture capital fund for early-stage start-up companies based on Institute discoveries, called PAMOT, to Prof. Harari. The duo very quickly raised $20 million for the initiative, some from their own funds.

Ultimately, PAMOT—operated through Yeda R&D, the Institute’s technology transfer company—didn’t produce the desired results, notes Prof. Harari, because the infusion of funds necessary for tech transfer success was of a much higher order, and because there’s never any guarantee that a certain discovery will work in the marketplace. “But it—and their financial advice in general—was a success in the sense that, while all of us scientists were in our labs exploring our curiosity and content with generating new knowledge, Maurice and Gilbert understood that scientific knowledge and information could be monetized, and they helped us think about how to do that, for the benefit of ongoing research, and for the Weizmann Institute.”

Miel recalls that her father “was fascinated about astronomy, botany, fascinated with the world, with genetics… He was a Renaissance man. He took me to Weizmann when I was little and the visit left a very strong impression. He was so proud when talking about Weizmann scientists’ prizes. I acquired from him his love of music, art, and curiosity about science and, before he died, he said he wanted to teach me about philanthropy, but he passed unexpectedly and he never had the time to do that.”

Gilbert was widely eulogized upon his passing, at age 65 in 2000. The Institute named the Yeda building in his honor. The Guardian wrote: “Gilbert was a brilliant man, with the intellectual power to absorb, analyse and understand a mind-boggling amount of information. He was also cultured, suave, witty, modest and authoritative—an impossible combination to resist when first meeting him…. Ultimately, he was a great intellectual, a scholar who enjoyed applying purity of thought to everything he did.”

Hitting a high note

As a child, Miel dreamt of being a singer, but she kept her dream a secret. She was always surrounded by music growing up and has “always been transported by music,” she says. “My father loved classical music, and my parents often took me to concerts and the opera.”

She received a law degree at Oxford University and a degree in clinical psychology, then worked as a clinical psychologist and family therapist in Paris, where she practiced for six years in a drug addiction center before moving back to London. After a divorce and her father’s death, and with some rethinking that came amidst raising her two children, she decided to throw herself into her music and formally launched her music career in 2014.

Her debut album, ‘Magnetic’, with producer Andy Wright, is a collection of reinterpreted French chansons from the 1930s-1950s—exactly the kind of songs her father used to relish and sing to her—and her own original material, in French and English. It was released to critical acclaim. Her most recent album, ‘Surrender to the Feeling,’ came out last year to equally positive reviews.

“I do believe that music and psychology are related—that music can be healing,” she says. “That is what I look for in my music: whether it has an ability to relate to a deep human emotion, and heal the soul.”

It was UK friend Jeremy Smouha, an International Board member who had worked with Gilbert, who connected Miel to Weizmann UK Executive Director Sheridan Gould. The tight friendship between the two women, says Miel, enables her to keep up to speed on Weizmann science, but also more broadly keeps her connected to Israel. Miel’s involvement in Weizmann has also helped widen the circle of UK friends, including with Denis Raeburn, an International Board member and President’s Circle member, and a former director at GAM.

Miel recalls her performance at the Weizmann Institute campus after receiving her PhD as “a thrilling moment where my music came together with one of my passions, which is Weizmann and Israel.”

Today, she says, her musical career keeps her busy—though she looks forward to the end of the pandemic to return to the stage. In the meantime, she adds, “this is the time for science to do its magic and offer a solution for humanity.”