In examining the history of the University of Vienna, I discovered Olga Ehrenhaft-Steindler was the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in physics from the university in 1903. Who was she? How did she become the first? How did society of the time view the education of young women?
I’m starting a series on women who left their mark on Vienna and Austria, and some of the traces they left behind in the Austrian capital city. With educators, inventors, writers, and scientists, my serial includes: Dr. Marietta Blau; Marianne Hainisch; Hedwig Kiesler, a.k.a. Hedy Lamarr; Dr. Lise Meitner; Dr. Gabriele Possanner; Dr. Elise Richter; and Bertha von Suttner.
Who: Dr. Olga Ehrenhaft-Steindler: b/✵ 28 Oct 1879, d/✟ 21 Dec 1933.
PhD: 1st woman with doctoral degree in physics from University of Vienna, 1903.
Educator: Early 20th-century teacher & advocate for better access to education for young women.
In late 19th-century and early 20th-century Austria and Vienna, Olga Steindler was one of countless women who faced difficulties and challenges by young women who wanted to expand their education and improve employment, all of which were viewed by society at the time as undesirable. Feminism or anything similar did not exist.
Born and raised in Vienna, Olga Steindler departed her home for Prague to complete and pass her final high-school examinations in 1899, because young women were not permitted to do so within Austria at the time. She subsequently enrolled at the University of Vienna to study physics and mathematics within the Faculty of Philosophy. Only two years earlier in 1897 had the University of Vienna finally accepted the enrolment of women, although they were initially allowed only into the Faculty of Philosophy. In 1903, Steindler became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Vienna after successfully completing her research dissertation.
Completing qualifications for teaching at secondary (high) schools in the same year, she joined the “Athenäum” where she taught young women about experimental physics; she also taught at Vienna’s first girls’ secondary school established by Marianne Hainisch in the city’s 1st district. In 1907, she founded two new schools in Vienna: a girls’ public secondary school in the city’s 2nd district, and a business school for young women in the city’s 8th district. Steindler married her physicist colleague Dr. Felix Ehrenhaft in 1908; she became known as Dr. Olga Ehrenhaft-Steindler. She championed the cause for educating girls and young women, and creating new opportunities in science, business, and society at large. For her dedicated service to the public, Austria awarded her in 1931 the title of “Hofrat” as a new member of the imperial court advisory council, an honour uncommon among Austrian women at the time. At the age of 54, Dr. Olga Ehrenhaft-Steindler died in December 1933 from complications after having contracted pneumonia.
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On my list and map, I placed the museum’s location as a “possible” to visit in the city. If I had time, I’d swing by and have a look, appealing to my fondness for science and the history of science.
Many arrive in Würzburg to visit the Residenz UNESCO world heritage site. On a daytrip from Frankfurt am Main, I duly visited the Residenz, and easily completed my initial visit requirements, as I knew I would. That’s when my inner voice (a.k.a., the spirit of B.Sc. ’90) reminded me insistently the museum was “simply and conveniently” on the return walk to the city’s central train station to fully complete my visit requirements.
I walked north from the Residenz, and followed the signs into the building for the Röntgen-Gedächtnisstätte (Röntgen Memorial) where X-rays were discovered. Standing inside the former laboratory space, I’m surrounded by artifacts, books, papers, tubes, equipment, and photographs.
I also feel a part of my undergraduate physics education has come full circle.
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