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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences - Department of Chemistry

History of the Department of Chemistry

The "Berliner Universität" was founded in 1810 during a short reformist period in Prussia after its defeat by Napoleon. The founding principles were laid down by linguist, philosopher and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt:

  • Science is an open and forever unfinished effort,
  • Knowledge of details should always relate to a grander view of the matter, and indeed of the world,
  • Research and teaching are inseparable,
  • Education through basic science contributes more efficiently to the common welfare than specific training.

The university was originally centered on the humanities. Alexander von Humboldt exemplified the appeal of the founding principles for the natural sciences, as subsequently did many outstanding scientists who were associated with this university, such as Robert Koch, Rudolf Virchow, Hermann Helmholtz, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Max von Laue, August W. Hofmann, Emil Fischer, Otto Hahn, Liese Meitner, Walther Nernst, and many others. The two Humboldt brothers had created a model of a modern university, which since has been emulated throughout the world.

The university was situated centrally »Unter den Linden«. Chemistry got its first building (1869) in the Georgenstraße. The importance of physical chemistry was soon recognised; hence a Physical Chemistry Building was located in Bunsenstrasse next to the world-famous Physics Institute in 1878. Chemists and physicists interacted strongly, with the Berliner Akademie der Wissenschaften serving as a discussion place. Emil Fischer conceived the Chemistry Building in Hessische Strasse where he moved in 1890. Since 2001 the Department is located in a new building on the Adlershof Campus in the south of the city.

Martin Heinrich Klaproth (1743–1817) was the first professor of chemistry at the Berliner Universität. He discovered several elements, e.g. uranium. – His successor Eilhard Mitscherlich (1794–1863) had studied both chemistry and medicine. He wrote a leading chemistry textbook of that time and was head of the department for fourty years. – August Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818–1892) followed Mitscherlich in 1865. He was a co-founder of the Deutsche Chemische Gesellschaft in 1867. – Jacobus Henricus van´t Hoff (1852–1911), a Dutch chemist, helped lay the foundations of chemical thermodynamics and received the Nobel Prize in 1901, the first of a long series of Nobel Prizes in Berlin. Emil Fischer (1852–1919) received the prize in 1902 for his work on sugars and other carbohydrates and on purines, Adolf von Baeyer (1835–1917) in 1905 for his studies on organic dyes and aromatic compounds. – Rudolf Clausius (1822–1888) established thermodynamics as a science by formulating its second law. – Walther Nernst (1864–1941) took over the chair of physical chemistry in 1905. He formulated the third law of thermodynamics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1920. Later he became professor of experimental physics. – Fritz Haber (1868–1934), who became director at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute for physical chemistry in 1911, also lectured at the Berliner Universität. He developed the synthesis of ammonia and received the Nobel Prize in 1918. – Otto Heinrich Warburg (1883–1970) studied both chemistry and medicine and was professor in physiology. He received the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1931 for his discoveries concerning enzymes involved in cellular respiration. He also studied the energetics of photosynthesis. – Max Bodenstein (1871–1942) succeded Nernst at the physical chemistry institute in 1923. He is well known for his studies of chemical kinetics and was also active in catalytic and photochemical research.

The Golden Age of chemistry and physics in Berlin ended in 1933, when Fritz Haber, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger had to emigrate. Also Walther Nernst and Max Planck suffered great difficulties. Science, knowledge and art were curtailed, barbarism led to World War II, and resulted, inter alia, in the division of Berlin and Germany by a wall in 1961. Subsequently, the "Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin", as it was renamed in 1949, became a political instrument of the German Democratic Republic. Even socialist or communist scientists were repressed if they criticised the political system, as shown by the example of Robert Havemann (1910–1982), one of the directors of the physical chemistry institute.

The Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Parliament then decided that Berlin should have three universities (Humboldt University - HU, Free University - FU, and Technical University - TU). At the Humboldt University, all chairs were newly appointed. Student enrollment in natural sciences is now similar for all three universities.