Against the odds

Franziska Turck from the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research talks about the botanist and Nazi opponent Elisabeth Schiemann

In 1908, Estonian-born Elisabeth Schiemann (1881–1972) is one of the first women allowed to study science in Berlin. One of her lecturers is the renowned breeding researcher Erwin Baur, who inspires the student’s interest in genetics, still a young discipline at the time. Under his supervision, she earns her doctorate on mutations in fungi; she subsequently qualifies as a professor at the Agricultural University with a thesis on barley.

As an assistant to her former doctorate supervisor, she supervises the collection of grains, maintains the test areas and looks after the doctoral students. Despite all of this, Baur overlooks her when awarding the job. Disappointed, she parts company with her former mentor.

Elisabeth Schiemann spends twelve and a half years conducting research at the Botanic Museum as an unpaid researcher. She manages to support herself with various scholarships and some paid teaching at the University of Berlin. She publishes her findings in 1932 in a book entitled Die Entstehung der Kulturpflanzen (The origin of cultivated plants). It becomes a reference work and helps to make her name as a recognized botanist.

In 1943, Elisabeth Schiemann is appointed Head of the Crop Plant History department at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Kulturpflanzenforschung (Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Crop Plant Research). It is only after the war ends – at the age of 65 – that she is finally offered a professorship at what becomes the Humboldt University in Berlin. In 1953, her department is taken over by the Max Planck Society and renamed the Forschungsstelle für Geschichte der Kulturpflanzen (Research Centre for the History of Crop Plants). Schiemann is appointed a Scientific Member.

Elisabeth Schiemann opposes national socialism from the very beginning. As a geneticist, she speaks out on its race ideology; in her eyes, preserving the purity of human “races” is scientific nonsense. She quotes Jewish and Russian authors in her lectures, boycotts the meetings of the National Socialist University Teachers’ League and publicly denounces the lawless Nazi state. In 1940, her licence to teach is revoked as part of a “purging of the universities”. However, she goes even further: together with her sister Gertrud, a musician, she hides the Jewish sisters Andrea and Valerie Wolffenstein, saving their lives.

Only later is due consideration given to Elisabeth Schiemann and her achievements: since 2013, the Elisabeth Schiemann Kolleg of the Max Planck Society has been supporting particularly gifted young female scientists following their postdoctoral phase. In 2014, the Jerusalem-based Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center honours Elisabeth Schiemann with the title “Righteous among the Nations”. The solemn ceremony follows in the Max Planck Society’s Harnack House in Berlin in February 2018.

Ms Turck, what do you find so fascinating about botany? Why did you become a botanist?

My father, who was a professor of physics, inspired in me a love of research. Science was always held in high esteem in our home. But I see myself more as a molecular biologist than as a botanist. After studying biotechnology, I worked for a while in cancer research. I actually came to botany purely by chance.

It was important to me to study something applied. Plant breeding is crucial because it involves safeguarding the supply of food for the world. In addition, I find the diversity in the plant kingdom simply fascinating: a common blueprint that engenders so many different forms and colours, and such crazy designs for life – I think it’s fantastic!

What fascinates you about the scientist Elisabeth Schiemann?

In her lifetime, women had an incredibly difficult time in science. Elisabeth Schiemann overcame gender roles. She was one of the first women to be allowed to study science. I find it admirable that she had such foresight during the Nazi era and that she managed to keep her distance from the populist movements. Standing by her convictions was a remarkable achievement.

How did she manage to follow her own path?

For Elisabeth Schiemann, family was crucial. The family home was her greatest influence. Her father, a renowned historian and professor of history, was Theodor Schiemann. She therefore grew up in an environment where science played a key role. I don’t think she would have managed to do that if she had been a working-class child. Elisabeth Schiemann also never married, she concentrated entirely on her research for her whole life.

What influence does Elisabeth Schiemann’s research have on botany today?

Elisabeth Schiemann worked on the origin of crop plants. She thus defined a research direction that is more relevant than ever today. We now have access to genome data, which underpins this research. These days, growers often return again to the point of origin of a plant species, where the genetic diversity is greatest. This is where certain resistance genes can be found, which otherwise are lost in the course of adaptation to new locations.

Barley, for example, originated in a hot, dry environment and was introduced from there to colder regions before ultimately being cultivated in Spain. It would have been better adapted to the hot and dry climate there if it hadn’t previously taken a detour via the north. ‘Returning to the roots’ facilitates access to the most important genes.

 While things have improved considerably for women in science since the early 20th century, a lot remains to be done. What has your experience been in relation to career opportunities for women in science?

There are lots of great funding programmes around now that did not exist when I started my career. At that time, the only funding I was offered was one-third of a postdoctoral position for full-time work! That was like a slap in the face. I think it is a pity, however, that the current programmes are tied to so many conditions: you not only need to be a woman, you also need to be young.

I believe women’s networks are very important. They enable women to very consciously support other women and to propose them for positions in science. In an ideal world, mixed networks would be the norm but unfortunately we are a long way from that. One of the things I have noticed is that young women in particular find it easier in meetings if there are no men at the table. Communication between men simply works differently. For starters, this is often where the hierarchy is defined.

What do you think is needed for more girls to become interested in scientific and technical disciplines and to aspire to careers in these areas? Are mentoring programmes helpful?

At the moment, I see that the science is being downgraded in schools, a trend that I find regrettable. When I complained once at a parents’ evening at my children’s school that such an important subject as maths is regularly only taught in the sixth period, I was met with a lack of understanding among the other parents. It is almost trendy to be bad at maths and physics: “We couldn’t do it back then either.” The belief that maths is not needed later in life is a widely held misconception. It is needed particularly in biology, in subjects like population genetics.

What advice would you give to young women who are considering becoming scientists?

Anyone who aspires to have a career in science and also wants to start a family should ask themselves honestly if they are up to this dual challenge. Reconciling both of these aspects of life is not going to be a walk in the park. And it’s not made easy for a woman. You need to be able to delegate. And you should accept whatever help that you can get.

In my case, it was always understood that my husband would help to look after our three children. We also had an au-pair at times, and when our third child was born my parents came to live with us in Cologne. In France, where we lived before, childcare is much better. There, it is normal to have a childminder. And you are not looked at disapprovingly if you put your child in a crèche for the whole day.

Elke Maier conducted this interview


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