Above/featured: Illuminated by autumn morning light, Helmholtz stands proud in the Humboldt University’s “Ehrenhof”.
If you’re in Berlin for the first time, you’ll likely make your way to the city centre and the classic tree-lined avenue Unter den Linden. When you’re not people-watching, you’ll likely admire the architecture along the way. Across the street from Bebelplatz plaza is the main building of the Humboldt University (HU). In its front court or “court of honour” are several memorial statues dedicated to some key figures in the history of arts, sciences, and the university: Hermann Helmholtz, Lise Meitner, Max Planck, and Theodor Mommsen.
The Humboldt University was one of many stops in Berlin during my visit in November 2021.
Short history of HU
Established in 1809 and opening in 1810, the University of Berlin became the Friedrich Wilhelm University in 1828, before closure in 1945 during the 2nd World War. The university reopened in 1949, and East German authorities changed the name in honour of the Humboldt brothers Alexander (1769-1859) and Wilhelm (1767-1835).
As explorer and naturalist, Alexander is recognized for his journeys into the Americas, and is considered one of the first to describe human-induced climate change in the early 19th-century. As humanist and linguist, Wilhelm is recognized for his ideas regarding universal education for the public to build an educated well-rounded society capable of critical and independent thought. Living at a time with literary contemporaries poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, playwright Friedrich Schiller, and writer Rahel Varnhagen, the Humboldt brothers believed in an interdisciplinary approach to diversifying education by bridging arts and science.
At the Humboldt University, the extensive list of faculty and alumni include over 50 Nobel Prize laureates, the most for any university in Germany. The Humboldt way of blending, respecting, and encouraging both research and teaching to enrich the academic lives of university staff would become inspiration and aspiration for future scholars, a model emulated by future universities in North America and around the world.
The Prinz-Heinrich-Palais was first completed in 1753 as Prussia’s royal residence for Prince Henry, brother of King Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse). In 1810, the building was converted for use by the fledgling University of Berlin, becoming the university’s first and main building. Outside the metal fence flanking the entrance gate are statues of the Humboldt brothers. In front of the building’s primary (south) entrance is a courtyard with statues of Hermann von Helmholtz, Lise Meitner, Theodor Mommsen, and Max Planck; all of whom are key figures in the university’s history. This forecourt (Vorhof) is known also as the Ehrenhof or “court of honour”.
Humboldt Brothers (in winter)
Hermann von Helmholtz, 1821–1894
Hermann von Helmholtz was trained in both medicine and physics; he took up the position of physics professor at the university in 1871. He undertook and wrote about research studies of the eye, including vision and colour; electrodynamics and the study of electric and magnetic fields; and thermodynamics in chemical processes. He served as advisor to many students including Heinrich Hertz, Albert Michelson, Max Planck, Wilhelm Wien; these four left their own marks in the history of physics and science. I paid my respects to Helmholtz at his grave in the Wannsee cemetery in southwest Berlin.
Lise Meitner, 1878–1968
Lise Meitner obtained her doctorate in physics in 1905; she was the 2nd woman in Austria and at the University of Vienna to be awarded a doctoral degree. She moved to Berlin and worked with chemist Otto Hahn. She set up her own research group within the newly established With Kaiser Wilhelm research institute which finally hired her permanently with pay in 1913. In 1926, she became the first woman with the title of full Professor of physics in Germany. She played a major role in discovering and describing the process of nuclear fission. Anti-semitism and sexism prevented proper recognition of her efforts. Slowly over the past couple of decades, Meitner has received posthumous accolades, but unfortunately, she does not share the 1944 Nobel Prize awarded solely to Otto Hahn. After Marie Curie, Meitner is the second woman for whom a chemical element in the periodic table is named: meitnerium is element number 108.
Max Planck, 1858–1947
For his work on the mathematical description of light as “packets” or quanta of energy, Max Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. The Nobel Institute honoured Planck “in recognition of the services he rendered to the advancement of Physics by his discovery of energy quanta”. I paid my respects at Planck’s grave in Göttingen. The principal physical constant in quantum physics is named after Planck, and I mused about why the constant is represented as “h” instead of “p”.
This memorial sculpture of Planck was completed in 1950. Does Planck look a little grumpy in the sculpture? Perhaps that fits with the sculptor’s intention for an abstract representation of a knowledgeable scholar. However, “abstract” was considered too “bourgeois” and “decadent” to East German authorities which meant the original inauguration was “delayed”. I suppose if the original unveiling of the memorial at its intended location was delayed by a whopping 56 years, I’d be terribly glum and irritated, too.
Theodor Mommsen, 1817–1903
Theodor Mommsen was known in the late 19th-century as one of the best minds in classical studies, and for his work on the “law of obligations” with its subsequent impact on the civic legal code within Germany. After completing in 1843 his doctorate in law in Kiel, he accepted the role of professor in Leipzig, Zürich, and Breslau between 1848 and 1854. In 1858, he arrived at Berlin’s Prussian Academy of Sciences, where he completed his major project, the “Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum”, which was a collection of Latin inscriptions as record of antiquity. In 1861 he took up the chair of Roman archaeology at Berlin University; he would spend a total of forty-plus years at the university. Mommsen published in 1854–1856 “Römische Geschichte” (The History of Rome) in a multiple-volume series. He also served as politician with efforts fighting anti-semitism and supporting German unification, despite his aggressive opposition to Slavic nations. For his work on the histories of the Roman Empire and the legal code, Mommsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902.
About Humboldt, from DW Arts, Culture, & Science:
• Alexander von Humboldt: A 19th century German home story (20190911).
• Humboldt 2.0: Why a scientist born 250 years ago is more relevant than ever (20190913).
• Happy birthday, Humboldt! with author Andrea Wulf: DW Arts21, 26 minutes in English (20190914).
• Humboldt in the Americas: DW Documentary, part 1 of 7 (20190914).
Directions, public transport
The main campus and building of the Humboldt University is located at Unter den Linden 6, across the street from Bebelplatz. This area is located just west from the Neue Wache guardhouse, the German Historical Museum, and the Berlin Cathedral. With the U-Bahn, take the U5 train to station “Unter den Linden” followed by a walk about 400 metres to the east, or the U5 train to station “Museumsinsel” followed by a walk about 400 metres to the west. Alternatively, hop on city bus 100 or 300 to stop “Staatsoper.”
In this front courtyard stood a tall leafy decades-old Kastanie (chestnut tree), well-loved by many in the university community. Unfortunately, the tree fell over in mid-June 2021.
I made all images above on 28 Nov 2021 with a Fujifilm X70 fixed-lens prime. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins DOT com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-frg.