Interview | FVB | 16-07-2021

Two workaholics at the Spree

Berlin – City of Knowledge 2021. Two men were instrumental in enabling the city to flourish as the German capital of knowledge as early as in the Imperial era: the Privy Councilor of Medicine, Rudolf Virchow, and Hermann von Helmholtz, the “Imperial Chancellor of the Sciences.”

Prof. Ursula Klein conducts research at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and is a member of the Leopoldina | Photo: private

Both scholars were born 200 years ago. As good a reason as any to talk to Professor Ursula Klein from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin – an expert on science, technology and the state during the industrialization of Prussia – about the life and work of these researchers.

Ms. Professor Klein, Rudolf Virchow joined the University of Berlin as professor of pathology in 1856, followed by Hermann von Helmholtz as full professor of physics in 1871. What was Berlin’s science landscape like at the time?

Prussia had long been at the forefront of science, thanks to the renowned University of Berlin and the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences. But not only that – all of Prussia’s central scientific and technical schools had been founded in Berlin: the Veterinary School, the Military Medical School (where both Virchow and von Helmholtz were almost contemporaries), the Academy of Civil Engineering and Architecture, the Industrial Academy ... Many of these foundations were related to industrialization. For the state, however, the sciences were also a symbol of progress and modernity in competition with England and France. Even more institutes were created after the founding of the German Empire in 1871. By this time, Berlin had finally evolved into a city of knowledge, and had become both a scientific and an industrial hub.

Unlike today, when students often start specializing after a couple of terms, both researchers worked in a very wide range of fields. Why was this the case?

Back then, natural science was in the process of diversification. In fact, the subject studied by von Helmholtz and Virchow – medicine – was still a catch-all for many emerging disciplines such as physiology, psychology, anthropology, medical botany and chemistry ... Experimental physiology, something von Helmholtz later stood for, did not develop in its own right before the 1840s. And physics still had many areas of overlap with medicine, sensory physiology, chemistry, etc.

Does the term “polymath” apply equally to both scholars?

Yes, in the sense that von Helmholtz covered almost the entire field of physics – optics, electrodynamics, thermodynamics, mechanics and hydrodynamics – besides exploring aesthetics (sensations of tone), physiology and psychology. Virchow was rather more specialized in medicine. He focused on pathology, and achieved fame for his cellular pathology. His second mainstay was public health, which emerged as a new subdiscipline of medicine at the time. This covered everything to do with hygiene; the hygienic conditions in Berlin were beyond belief in those days! But he was also active in the fields of ethnology and anthropology. Hence the term “polymath” is appropriate.

What role did science play in society at the time of Virchow and von Helmholtz?

For the general population? Virtually none at all. That’s one reason why researchers insisted on popularizing science and giving it a more prominent place in the school curriculum. But the Catholic Church was having none of it. In 1870, the Pope issued an encyclical in which he declared papal infallibility and claimed to have a great influence on education, which was vehemently rejected by Otto von Bismarck in 1871 after the unification of the German Empire. This led to disputes with the Church, causing Virchow to coin the term “Kulturkampf” (culture struggle). Even Hermann von Helmholtz, who otherwise tended to be politically reserved, got involved. In the salons of the educated bourgeoisie, however, there was broad support for the sciences.

How far did the researchers get involved in the dispute?

Not very far, in the case of von Helmholtz. Despite being liberal, he was also a pro-monarchy conformist. He had nothing to do with the revolution of 1848. His wife ran a salon that was frequented by the upper ranks of the nobility.

Virchow was the exact opposite – a leftist liberal and co-founder of the liberal party Deutsche Fortschrittspartei. During the revolution of 1848, he even helped erect barricades, clashed with the authorities, and was a Querdenker (lateral thinker) – in the best sense of the word. Which is probably why, unlike von Helmholtz, he wasn’t ennobled. Quite the opposite: Wilhelm II even prevented him from accepting honorary medals from abroad.

What’s remarkable is how Virchow used his scientific expertise to improve social conditions. He became a member of the Municipal Council of Berlin, campaigning for the construction of a sewerage system in the city, the disposal of waste on sewerage fields, and the building of municipal hospitals. Owing to the catastrophic hygienic conditions that prevailed, there were repeated outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. Virchow, well aware of the connection between poverty, hunger, and a lack of hygiene and education in the emergence of epidemics, set about developing a comprehensive program. He is regarded as a co-founder of social medicine.

Is anything known about their personalities?

Documents confirm that both were scientific workaholics, but were also active outside the sciences. Despite the prevalence of nationalist-chauvinist tendencies in the mid-nineteenth century, they were both cosmopolitan, maintained close contacts with other researchers abroad, and refrained from engaging in the usual anti-Semitism. In their private lives, however, both played the conventional male role, relying on being left undisturbed by family matters.

In what way do the two scholars differ from contemporary scientists?

Above all, in their research, which was not overly specialized, and in the scientist’s ethos of the day. Nowadays, research tends to be perceived as a profession that can be detached from other interests, such as the family and leisure activities, and that inevitably ceases at retirement age. In their day, the life of a scientist was considered a lifelong vocation encompassing all areas of life that ended only on death. The university was like a big family where much of social life took place. They socialized with all their fellow scientists. Today’s highly specialized science brings with it a much more distanced attitude towards one’s work.

What is the legacy of Virchow and von Helmholtz?

Unlike scientists such as Einstein, they are not known for one great discovery. Both achieved outstanding results, but always in fields where other researchers were also active – Virchow in cellular pathology and public health, von Helmholtz, with a stronger focus on theory, and in physics and physiology. Yet this makes their work more typical of science in general – because scientific achievements always build on the preliminary work of others.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we are witnessing how science has suddenly assumed such a high status in public perception, politics and the media. What explanation do you have for this?

In such a global crisis that affects each and every one of us directly and personally, a great deal is expected of science – not least because we place considerable trust in it. The government had to take immediate action in this case, and, as has long been the case, it relied on panels of experts and on institutions such as the Robert Koch Institute and the Leopoldina. This ultimately contributed to the political legitimacy of its Covid measures.

But what we are also seeing at present is a resurgence of the old gap between the humanities and the natural sciences. Historians, philosophers and a number of sociologists are concerned that natural scientists might start playing their social role – that of the publicly engaged intellectual. Nowadays, humanities scholars are no less specialized than their counterparts in the natural sciences, but they often believe that they alone merit public and political attention. Until now, they tended to think of natural scientists as nerds who were unable to think outside the box. And now, all of a sudden, they are the ones who are stepping out in public and gaining the sovereignty of interpretation in society. What an upside-down world!

The interview was conducted by Catarina Pietschmann. It was published in the Verbundjournal 116 | 2021