Margarete von Wrangell - First female professor in Germany
Prof`in Dr. Claudia Bohrmann-Linde (Chemistry)
Photo: UniService Transfer

Six votes decide the first female professorship in Germany

Prof. Dr. Claudia Bohrmann-Linde on the fertilizer researcher Margarete von Wrangell

The fertilizer researcher Margarete von Wrangell is considered to be the first female full professor in Germany. Who was this woman?

Bohrmann-Linde: Margarete von Wrangell came from a noble family, so she had grown up in well-to-do circumstances and was used to dealing with staff. Despite these privileges, she had one decisive disadvantage in her time; and that was her gender. Already very inquisitive as a child, she embarked on what was, for that class, a classic female career. She went to a girls' school, graduated with a teaching degree, but then found no fulfillment in continuing to work as a private teacher. She described this period as 'gloomy` and 'not life-rewarding`. A turning point in her life was then a feigned stay in a sanatorium in Greifswald. There she took part in a vacation course at the Botanical Institute at the University of Greifswald. That was a moment when she found her passion for botany and natural sciences. At this point she knew where her further journey in life would lead.

In 1894, she passed the teacher's exam and taught at a girls' school. It wasn't until 1903 that she decided to study chemistry at the age of 27, which her relatives called "crazy." Why did she take this step?

Bohrmann-Linde: It was precisely this experience. She first took the path that was expected of women in this society: to obtain an education typical of women and to marry in a manner befitting her station. At the age of 26, she had this said "sanatorium stay," and a year later she began her studies. This was all beyond what was expected of a woman in this position and accordingly "crazy." For von Wrangell, however, it was then a logical step. But a problem arose in doing so, because for the aristocratic woman who had grown up in Moscow and in the area of today's Tallin, studying there was impossible. She then took up the study of botany and chemistry in Tübingen, Germany's oldest university, in 1903. This combination was the cornerstone of her later work. Von Wrangell was very successful and soon received her doctorate.

Von Wrangell received his doctorate "summa cum laude" in 1909, worked unpaid and turned to radiochemistry. How did this come about?

Bohrmann-Linde: You can find parallels to this unpaid work in today's world as well. Today, we do have paid work in the qualification phases, but usually only on temporary contracts. One could also compare the post-1909 period to a post-doc period, if one wants to see an analogy to today. Von Wrangell had worked scientifically in London with William Ramsay, was then also briefly in Strasbourg, and then had opened up a new research topic for himself with Marie Curie in Paris. Marie Curie, incidentally the first female professor at the Sorbonne, was a leading scientist in the field of radioactive substances. She also used her findings for practical applications. For example, there were so-called X-ray carts with which she moved near the front during the World War to be able to make examinations. So this was a modern and applied subject to which von Wrangell devoted herself, moreover also prominently occupied by Nobel Prize winners such as Ramsay and Curie.

In 1912, she became head of the experimental station of the Estonian Agricultural Society, where she was primarily concerned with phosphorus. Why this chemical element in particular?

Bohrmann-Linde: Phosphorus, along with nitrogen, is one of the most important elements we need for fertilizers. Initially, von Wrangell did not want to leave Paris, but because Marie Curie was in very poor health, she looked for new opportunities and what she called "service in the homeland" arose, because she still considered the area around Reval, today's Tallin in Estonia, to be her homeland. She was then asked to head an experimental station in Reval. In 1912, several things were clear: the world had to be fed, the population was growing steadily, there was constant hunger and - and this is more topical than ever today - one had to be self-sufficient. Incidentally, the largest deposits of inorganically bound phosphorus, i.e. phosphates, are found today in Africa, China and the U.S. The question was: how to obtain phosphorus, which then had to be made available to plants? Von Wrangell researched mineral fertilizers composed of phosphoric acid, potassium and nitrogen and found a method to activate the phosphoric acid found in the soil.

After the October Revolution, she was imprisoned, freed by German troops, and able to continue her experiments at the Agricultural College in Hohenheim. Von Wrangell's experiments were of particular importance to the large-scale chemical industry after the war, which resulted in heavy losses. Why?

Bohrmann-Linde: Let's briefly go back to the imprisonment. Margarete von Wrangell had refused at that time. You have to imagine that. Bolshevik troops came, wanted to bring von Wrangell's institute under their control and force Baltin, who, by the way, was a German nationalist, to sign a document. She vehemently resisted this, and it really takes true greatness to do so, which was certainly rooted in her character. She knew that she would then be unemployed and would have to go to prison, and she put up with that as well. What helped her then and also later were advocates. In Germany, in Hohenheim, there was a director Hermann Warmbold, whom she already knew from Reval. He brought the then unemployed scientist to the institute. Today, as then, such networks were very important. At that time, Germany was on the ground, there were high reparation payments to be made, many things had to be rebuilt and the population had to be fed. The fertilizer industry was of great importance.

In 1920, the agrochemist habilitated on "The Laws of Phosphoric Acid Nutrition of Plants" in Hohenheim and was offered a position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. But the professors resisted the "foreigner". For what reason?

Bohrmann-Linde: That's what the name already says. ProfessorenschaftIt was highly unusual for women to hold a leading position in an institute, let alone a professorship. This did not exist until then. Whether it was to protect one's own status quo, or fear of losing power or negative effects on the scientific community, or whether it was the prejudice that women were simply not capable of leading such an institute, we do not know. One can assume that the argument of the 'foreigner' was only pretended.

Fearing that she would lose a flagship institute, she was appointed as the first female full professor. How did this come about?

Bohrmann-Linde: This is where another important supporter of Wrangell comes into play, Fritz Haber, also a Nobel Prize winner, with whom she had worked at the Berlin Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry. He supported her. Haber himself was strongly protected by the German state for his research on ammonia synthesis. He campaigned against disagreements among the professors at Hohenheim. The filling of Wrangell's professorship, it was then purposeful, was directly linked to her name. Thanks to an initiative of the fertilizer industry of the time and the Reich Minister of Nutrition, funds were freed up for the expansion of the Plant Nutrition Institute. Funds were to flow only if von Wrangell was given the professorship. The voting process in Hohenheim was nevertheless extremely close. Five abstentions and six votes in favor. The Hohenheim Convention then grudgingly agreed to von Wrangell's staffing accordingly.

When she died in 1932 at the age of 55, she had developed the institute into an international research center for plant nutrition. A memorial stone on the grounds of the Hohenheim Institute bears her scientific motto: "I lived with the plants. I put my ear to the ground and it seemed to me that the plants were happy to tell me something about the secrets of growth." What is her significance to science?

Bohrmann-Linde: Her work was groundbreaking at the time. There was a fertilizer system that, interestingly, was not only named after her, but also after a colleague. Aereboe-Wrangell system, exactly in that order. It is reported that events were held at the institute itself where her colleague Aereboe presented first and then, as is reported about Wrangell herself, she came "with her plant pots" and was always cited as number two. The research that was done there was and is highly relevant. Fertilizers, whether liquid or solid, are now used in a variety of processes in a targeted manner that conserves resources as much as possible. Behind fertilizer research, even today, is a large and important sector of the chemical industry. But if we look for a connection to the person of Wrangell, it doesn't actually appear. It's crazy. If you Google such classic terms as fertilizers or phosphates, you don't find von Wrangell's name in relation to those topics. If you Google her name, you often end up in Baden-Württemberg, because that's where the University of Hohenheim is located, and there's already a significance attached to her personality here through state archives and so on. But it is very local and not appropriate to the scientific importance. There is a habilitation program for women, where a Wrangell scholarship can be applied for, but otherwise her name is very limited or sadly almost non-existent.

Uwe Blass

Prof. Dr. Claudia Bohrmann-Linde heads the Didactics of Chemistry group in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Bergische Universität.

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