Former Presidents

Former Presidents of the MPG & KWG

In discharging their office, all Presidents are guided by their field of expertise and the methods they employed as scientists. A defining characteristic of the microbiologist Peter Gruss is that he constantly seeks out new territory, often blazing unexplored trails but always prepared to retrace his steps or change direction if a path proves unfruitful. This is the hallmark of an experimenter for whom every experiment is an enriching experience – irrespective of the effort put into it and the outcome. Thus, as President of the Max Planck Society, Peter Gruss ventured forth in many directions. more
He was a man who never took the easy way out, who made his feelings known with wit and eloquence: Hubert Markl left a lasting mark on the Max Planck Society as its President from 1996 to 2002. Markl was born in Regensburg, Bavaria, on 17 August 1938. After passing his Abitur he attended Ludwig Maximilian University Munich to study biology, chemistry and geography. The professors who taught him included such well-known scientists as Martin Lindauer, Hansjochen Autrum and the future Nobel Prize winners Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch. more
Hans Zacher was born in Erlach am Inn, Lower Bavaria, in 1928, the son of a village schoolteacher. "The village we lived in was small and impoverished," he says. Yet his house was a little treasure trove full of books. Very austere conditions but an appreciation of education and culture: "a wonderful foundation upon which to grow". The nearest "little town with any sign of an urban culture" lay on the opposite bank of the Inn, in Austria: Braunau. The nearest city was Passau, 60 kilometres away. "My early childhood had nothing to do with law," he would later write in an autobiographical draft. "Social norms, religious standards, customs and constraints" – but not law. more
"Science is a dynamic process to which organisational structures in the sciences must adapt over and over again. To refuse to accept change is, for a scientific organisation, the first step down the path towards irrelevance." This is how Heinz A. Staab summed up his defining experiences as a scientist, and his understanding of the tradition and mandate of the Max Planck Society in 1986 on the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. more
People don't generally say that they have two dates of birth; however, physicist and science manager Professor Reimar Lüst is one who does. The first date of birth is his real one: 90 years ago, on 25 March 1923, is when he was born in Barmen (now a part of Wuppertal). He mentions his other birthday in the book Der Wissenschaftsmacher, a collection of conversations recorded between historian Paul Nolte and Lüst two years ago: that date is 11 May 1943. That's the day when Lüst, then an engineering officer, was the last man out of a submarine. more
Adolf Butenandt came from an old Hamburg family; he was born the son of merchant Otto Butenandt in Bremerhaven-Lehe on 24 March 1903. Butenandt studied chemistry, physics and biology in Marburg and Göttingen from 1921 to 1927. He obtained his doctorate in chemistry under Adolf Windaus in Göttingen in 1927, where he subsequently worked as his assistant from 1927 to 1931. He also earned his postdoctoral lecturing qualification in organic and biological chemistry there in 1931 and became an unsalaried lecturer. From 1933 to 1936 he was full professor at the Technical University of Danzig and Director of the Organic Chemistry Institute in Danzig-Langfuhr. Having taken up a residency in America funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1935 and subsequently turning down an appointment at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, he became an Institute Director at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1936. more
Otto Hahn was born the son of master glazier and merchant Heinrich Hahn in Frankfurt am Main on 8 March 1879. The youngest of four brothers, whose father actually wanted him to be an architect, Hahn went on to study chemistry at the universities of Marburg and Munich after completing his schooling in his home town. He received his doctorate in 1901 under Theodor Zincke at Marburg with a dissertation on organic chemistry (The bromine derivates of isoeugenol). He then completed his military service in 1901/02. more
"I could just as easily have become a philologist or a historian. What led me to hard science was a course of mathematical lectures which I attended at the university and which gave me an inner satisfaction and animation," wrote the world-famous physicist Max Planck. Planck's long life and scientific works are a sui generis reflection of both the optimism and the tragedy of the past two centuries, the belief in science and its failure. more
In 1941 the Reich Minister of Education appointed one of Germany's most influential industrial magnates President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society: Albert Vögler. Compared with Planck and Bosch, Vögler willingly placed himself at the disposal of the Nazi regime. However, at the same time, he campaigned for freedom of scientific research and opposed the state's attempts at dictation. As such, Vögler's presidency was marked by considerable ambivalence: as a close adviser to the Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production he organised the coordination of the armaments industry and made sure that the research capacities of the Kaiser Wilhelm institutes were optimally used for war aims. On the other hand, his close contacts with Albert Speer enabled him to obtain materials and money for the KWIs, and have many scientists exempted from conscription. Despite all its entanglement in the National Socialist system, the Nazi regime did not ultimately manage to completely Nazify the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. more
The Senate of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society elected Carl Bosch, former director general of IG Farben and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, to succeed Max Planck as President on 29 May 1937. The office he assumed was a difficult one. The change of President was accompanied by major upheavals in the Society's management structure: the Nazis' "leader principle" was also to apply to the KWG from then on. In parallel, people in management positions, such as Friedrich Glum and Lukas von Cranach, had to leave their posts. As President, the rough and reserved Carl Bosch did not much shape the fate of the KWG, though he did several times use his considerable influence in society, to save Jewish scientists like Lise Meitner and Otto Meyerhof from persecution, ultimately in vain. He increasingly left the day-to-day business to his close colleague Ernst Telschow. Bosch himself went on numerous trips abroad, trying to fight his growing depression. In despair at the political situation in Germany, he died in Heidelberg in 1940. more
"I could just as easily have become a philologist or a historian. What led me to hard science was a course of mathematical lectures which I attended at the university and which gave me an inner satisfaction and animation," wrote the world-famous physicist Max Planck. Planck's long life and scientific works are a sui generis reflection of both the optimism and the tragedy of the past two centuries, the belief in science and its failure. more
"Adolf v. Harnack was one of the most admired and, at the same time, one of the most fiercely challenged theologians of his era," begins Harnack's biographer Kurt Nowak in his portrait of the life of the church historian and scientific organiser. A strong Protestant work ethic coupled with huge working capacity and stupendous knowledge enabled Harnack to adopt an exceptional position in academic life, both in the Kaiser's empire and in the Weimar Republic. Harnack became the first President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1911. He exercised the office on a part-time basis until his death in 1930. Harnack taught ecclesiastical history and the history of dogma at Berlin University until 1921. In parallel, he modernised the Prussian library system as Director General of the Prussian State Library and advised the Prussian Education Ministry on university and school matters as a sought-after expert. In the Weimar Republic he also played a decisive role in establishing the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft (the Emergency Association of German Science), the predecessor of the German Research Foundation. more