April 26, 2015

What was it like to be a woman scientist in Germany in the 20th century?

What was it like to be a woman scientist in Germany in the 20th century?

Brief biographical accounts of three remarkable German women scientists: Clara Immerwahr Haber, Ida Noddack-Tacke and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, portray a sense of the cultural milieu in which women scientists struggled in the last hundred years to succeed. The significance of the role of marriage is revealed, as well as alluding to the difficulty to be a scientist and at the same time a mother.

clara_immerwahrClara Immerwahr Haber was born in 1870 in Breslau (previously part of Germany, now Wrocław in Poland) from an upper-middle class Jewish family. Her father was a chemist. Clara Immerwahr was the first woman at the University of Breslau to graduate with a doctorate, which she received in 1900 in physical chemistry with magna cum laude. In 1901 she married fellow chemist Fritz Haber and soon afterwards fell pregnant. Her son, Hermann Haber, was born in 1902. Societal norms and a husband who appears to have ruthlessly prioritised his own ambitions in their marriage and family life prevented her from continuing her scientific research. She nevertheless supported her husband by contributing to his research and by translating some of his work into English, mostly without recognition.

Clara believed that science should constructively serve humanity and she was vehemently opposed to Haber’s work on poison gas warfare, calling it a “perversion of science”. In April 1915, Haber directed the first poison gas attack in military history using chlorine gas against French troops in Ypres, Belgium (even though this was against the Hague Convention of War of 1907). Within 10 minutes half of the 10 000 soldiers were dead. Two days later, another chemical attack succeeded in killing thousands more soldiers (some of them being German, because of the non-selectivity of using gas as a weapon). Two weeks later, her husband newly promoted and wearing his full captain’s regalia, hosted a party to celebrate this success. A furious argument ensued between them, where she confronted him about the barbaric act of chemical warfare and he accused her of being a traitor to the fatherland. In the dark early hours of the next morning, while Haber was sleeping, she took his service gun, went into their garden and shot herself in the heart. Haber apparently did not even attend to the funeral arrangements and left the same day, seemingly unperturbed by her death, to supervise another gas release against the Russians on the eastern front. Her death was steeped in controversy. No autopsy was carried out, a suicide letter went missing, and her death was not adequately reported in the local newspaper.

At the end of the war in 1918, Fritz Haber’s name was published on the list of war criminals, but this did not deter the Swedish Academy to award him the Nobel Prize for Physics (for the year 1918) for his work in the Haber-Bosch industrial synthesis of ammonia, which was announced late in the year 1919. Due to the war many Nobel Prizes were only decided, announced and awarded after the war. Haber therefore received the 1918 Nobel Prize in 1919. Despite Haber’s ardent patriotism, he was obliged to leave Germany due to his Jewish heritage. He died of a heart attack in 1934; his ashes were buried with Clara’s in Basel, Switzerland.

Clara’s son also left Germany, immigrated to the US and later committed suicide in 1946, apparently because he could no longer bear the shame of his father’s war crimes. The Nazis refined Haber’s gas technology for the gas chambers in Auschwitz, which ironically did not spare the lives of many members of Haber’s family.

ida_noddackIda Noddack-Tacke was born in 1896 in Wesel-Lackhausen. In 1921 Ida Tacke obtained her doctorate in chemistry at the Technical University in Berlin. Two years prior to that she was awarded first prize in chemistry and metallurgy. She came to be one of the first women to work as a scientist in industry in Germany.

In collaboration with Walter Noddack (whom she married a year later in 1926) and Otto Berg, she discovered the element rhenium, one of the two missing elements predicted by Mendeleev in his Periodic Table of the Elements. For this work she was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize, but never obtained one. In 1931 she was awarded with her husband the Liebig Medal of the German Chemical Society. To date she is the only woman to have received this award.

Considered as the Marie Curie of Germany she was first in identifying the process, which later came to be named “nuclear fission”. In 1934 she challenged Enrico Fermi (an Italian and later American nuclear physicist, 1901-1954) when he claimed that he had produced trans-uranium elements (artificial elements heavier than uranium) when the uranium was bombarded with neutrons. Ida suggested that he had produced isotopes of known elements rather than heavier unknown elements. Fermi, supported by the opinions of other scientists, was unconvinced by Noddack-Tacke’s prediction. Ida’s conjecture, however, proved to be correct in 1938 by various scientists, one of them being a woman, Lise Meitner (Austrian-born physicist, 1878-1968). Otto Hahn revealed in his autobiography that Ida had indeed been right. Despite this proof, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938 for his incorrect claim.

Ida worked together with her husband at three different institutions and together they published about a hundred scientific papers, until his death in 1960. They had no children, which according to some sources was difficult for them to accept. She was bestowed many honours in her life, retired in 1968 and moved to a small Rhine town, Bad Neunahr, where she died 11 years later.

320px-christiane_nsslein-volhard_mg_4406Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was born in 1942 in Magdeburg, as the second of five children. Both her parents came from families with many children. She studied biochemistry at the Eberhard-Karls University in Tübingen and in 1967 married the physicist Volker Nüsslein. After completing her masters in 1968 she worked at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen on her doctorate, which she received in 1973.

Her marriage of ten years with no children was dissolved in 1977. In the same year she went to the University of Freiburg to work with Klaus Sander, an insect embryologist. Her work on fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) earned her the nickname “Lady of the Flies” after the novel “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding.

Christiane has been the director of the Max Planck Institute for Development Biology in Tübingen and head of its Genetics Department since 1985. In 1986 she received the most prestigious award for German research, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation. With Eric Wieschaus and Edward Lewis, Christiane received the 1995 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their research on the genetic control of embryonic development. In 1998, Christiane founded with Peter Stadler (a former manager of Bayer AG) and the geneticist Klaus Rajewsky a biotechnological company, Artemis Pharmaceuticals GmbH (now part of Taconic Inc. since 2008), which specializes in developing genetically engineered drugs.

Between 2001 and 2006 Christiane was a member of Germany’s National Ethics Council, which is involved with the ethical assessment of new developments in the life sciences and their influence on the individual and society. She has also written several books, where Coming to Life: How Genes Drive Development was aimed at making the subject understandable to a lay public.

Christiane studied with great passion life at the embryonic stage and has contributed generously to German society by establishing the Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation in 2004 in order to encourage and support young talented women scientists with children.

In conclusion, it can be said that exploring the biography of only three German women scientists, which is not necessarily quantitative, is indeed sufficient to represent a valid glimpse into the issues that are considered as obstacles in the full development of a woman’s scientific potential in 20th century Germany. The selection was made from the best women scientists in Germany spread out over a century.

The most important factor that impacts the careers of women scientists is the prevailing politics. In the case of Clara Immerwahr, it was the politics of war, the involvement of the German Empire in World War I (1914-1918). Her pacifist stance as a prominent scientist was ignored. Not only is the politics of Germany a factor, but also the politics of science outside Germany, particularly with respect to the international recognition of scientists, for example by the Nobel Prize Committee.

The second factor identified is the role of marriage. In the first half of the last century, a woman’s success was only possible when enabled by a supportive (and probably also successful) husband. This was the only way to negotiate the politics that was resistant to supporting women to pursuit careers. Noddack for example enabled his wife’s success, where the contrary was true for Haber. And today a woman need not be married at all to enjoy a successful career, as shown by Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard.

Of all the three women discussed here, only Clara Immerwahr had a child. Her scientific career ended when she became a mother. Both Noddack-Tacke and Nüsslein-Volhard had no children.

In other European countries, e.g. France and Sweden, better opportunities are available to support women in balancing their careers with family commitments. It is hoped that the 21st century will see more German women with children being recognized as (top) scientists in the international arena.


  1. Wikipedia 
  2. Apotheker, J. and Sarkadi, L.S. (editors), European Women in Chemistry, Wiley-VCH Verlag & Co., KGaA (2011) (available on http://www.books.google.com/)
  3. Stoltzenberg, D., Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew. Chemical Heritage Press, Philadelphia (2004) http://www.fhi-berlin.mpg.de/mp/friedrich/PDFs/ACh_Haber_44.3957.2005.pdf
  4. BookRags Staff, Ida Tacke Noddack (2005) 8 Dec 2011. http://www.bookrags.com/biography/ida-tacke-noddack-woc/
  5. "Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard - Autobiography". Nobelprize.org. 8 Dec 2011 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1995/nusslein-volhard.html

This article was written for Frauenmesse by Quirina Roode-Gutzmer, scientist (M.Sc. Physical Chemistry) and German to English translator. Dirk Martin Stein, Anne de Grosbois, Christine Hartmann and Jens Gutzmer are acknowledged for proofreading and editorial comment.

Quirina’s translation website: Minerva Translations (http://minervatranslations.wordpress.com/)

Quirina’s creative writing blog: The mind’s sky (http://themindssky.wordpress.com/)

(1) Stoltzenberg, D., Fritz Haber: Chemist, Nobel Laureate, German, Jew. Chemical Heritage Press, Philadelphia (2004) http://www.fhi-berlin.mpg.de/mp/friedrich/PDFs/ACh_Haber_44.3957.2005.pdf

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