Leo Baeck Institute unveiled a new exhibit at the residence of German Ambassador Peter Ammon in Washington, DC that highlights the extraordinary contributions of German Jews in the fields of natural science, mathematics and medicine in Germany and for Germany in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Ambassador Ammon and Leo Baeck Institute Executive Director, Carol Kahn Strauss opened the exhibit, “Faith in Reason: Breakthroughs in Scientific Inquiry,” on May 10. The exhibit is the fourth in a long-standing partnership between LBI and the German Embassy in Washington.
The exhibit focuses on the role that that German-speaking Jews played in the scientific breakthroughs of the 19th and 20th centuries. Of the 170 Nobel Prize winners of Jewish heritage, for instance, 41 came from German-speaking countries. At the opening, Ambassador Ammon noted that Jewish scientists like Albert Einstein, Lisa Meitner, Fritz Haber made a crucial contribution to Germany’s leadership in science and research. Those who were forced into exile by the Nazi regime made similar contributions to their countries of refuge – often the United States.
The exhibit begins, however, with the philosophical foundations of Jewish scientific inquiry. Before full civil rights were gradually extended to Jews beginning in the early 19th century, they were barred from universities and had few opportunities to participate in science. Early Jewish scientific research evolved around medicine and astronomy, the latter as a tool for calculating the Jewish calendar and the former as a corrective to popular thinking, which leaned heavily on magic and superstition.
However, many Jews were well-poised to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by emancipation thanks to a philosophical tradition that viewed religious faith and worldly inquiry as two sides of the same coin. The great Jewish sage Maimonides (1135-1204), a physician by profession, explained that the truly righteous person is a possessor of knowledge, one who keeps the laws and understands them. The imperative to study, in particular to study Torah in order to gain insight into God’s wisdom, extends to the need to understand the universe around us as well.
Among the small number of Jewish scientists active in the 18th century was physician and zoologist Marcus Elieser Bloch (1723-1799), a close associate of Mendelssohn’s. His Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische [General Natural History of Fish] classifies over 1500 types of fish and remains a compilation of great scientific value. Ephraim Salomon Unger (1789-1870) was a mathematician who, with his brother David, established a private school, which became the prototype of a Realschule.
By the second half of the 19th century, Jews were at the vanguard of scientific discovery, especially in medicine. Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) is generally considered the originator of modern experimental medicine and chemotherapy. His discovery of Salvarsan, the first successful treatment against syphilis, earned him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1908.
Carol Kahn Strauss especially underscored the role of female German Jewish scientists in her remarks. Women scientists in Germany, as pioneers in their field, often achieved very high positions in science despite gender barriers that long outlasted restrictions against Jews. Rahel Hirsch (1870-1953) was the first Jewish woman to receive the title of Professor of Medicine in Prussia (1913). Since women were barred from attending German universities, Hirsch studied at Zurich University and at the University of Strasbourg.
One woman who transcended all barriers of religion and gender was Lise Meitner (1878-1968), who made her mark as a nuclear physicist. Together with the German physicist Otto Hahn, she discovered protactinium (element 91), although it was Otto Hahn who received the Nobel Prize in 1944 for the discovery.
Dr. Josef Eisinger, physicist and professor emeritus at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, highlighted the work and the fate of individual scientists presented in the exhibit. He focuses especially on Albert Einstein, about whose travels Dr. Eisinger has recently published a book called “Einstein on the Road.”
Past Exhibits by Leo Baeck Institute at the German Ambassador’s Residence in Washington:
- The Art of the Book (2011)
- Jewish Women in Germany – Tradition and Modernity (2010)
- Objects of our Past (2008)