Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Origins of a Universalist

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Origins of a Universalist

Article excerpt

What was it that sparked a passion for science in Gerhard Schmidt, a teenage boy growing up in a cultured Jewish home in Stuttgart, Germany, in the early years of the 20th century? Perhaps it was the example of his father, a professor of chemistry; but primarily, Gerhard said, it was exposure to particular books. One of those books, which he received as a gift for his fifteenth birthday, left a profound and lasting impression; it was entitled Der Mensch (Man), and "In this book, there was a color plate depicting fertilization and cell division and a schematic illustration of mitosis and chromosomes, and I had never heard about this and these structures fascinated me tremendously.... Of all the things, nothing impressed me more than the picture I saw of chromosomes."1 Perhaps here was laid the foundation for Gerhard's long-standing interest in nucleic acids and nucleoproteins during his research career.

Gerhard recalled the high quality of popular science publications in Germany at that time, up to and during the years of World War I. He was especially impressed by books of the supporters of Darwinian evolution, led by Ernest Haeckel, professor of zoology in Jena. To popularize science, Haeckel produced Kunstformen in Natur {Artforms in Nature), with wonderproducing illustrations, such as figures of diatoms and Radularia skeletons.2 The biologist Wilhelm Bolsche wrote many popular articles, a comprehensive history of the Earth, and even a three-volume work: Love Life in Nature,3 Among the articles Bolsche composed was one on "radiation pressure," a concept developed by the British physicist James Clerk Maxwell and described by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in his book, The Life of the Universe, As Conceived by Man from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time* Arrhenius described radiation pressure, the pressure exerted on any surface exposed to electromagnetic radiation, as a force by which material might be transported from star to star. Bolsehe's article ended with the dramatic sentence: "Perhaps we can imagine that a hundred million years from now, driven by Arrhenius' radiation pressure, a little dust particle of Goethe's body flies between Alpha Centauri and other stars." Gerhard recalled: "I was intoxicated by this sentence."

Gerhard's father, Julius Schmidt, was the son of a cattle dealer in the small Bavarian town of Baiersdorf. Julius, bom in 1872, studied chemistry at the University of Jena under Ludwig Knorr, the discoverer of antipyrene. He graduated in 1894 and six years later began to teach and carry on research at the Technische Hochschule of Stuttgart, the technical university of the State of Wiirttemburg, where he eventually became Professor Extraordinarius.

Julius married Isabella Gombrich, a concert pianist who grew up in Nürmberg, and they established their home in Stuttgart. Gerhard was born December 26, 1901. Three daughters, Elizabeth, Marion, and Renate, followed him, the youngest bom in 1924. Gerhard and his sisters grew up in an atmosphere of intellect and arts, in a family that was highly assimilated into German culture but never shook off its Jewish identity. Theirs was a middle-class family, not wealthy-an academic salary was not large-but, like many in the middle class, a family that could live comfortably if modestly, plan for a stable economic life, and look forward to a reliable pension. Well-developed medical insurance contributed to a sense of security. Such a family could embrace a balanced and rewarding life with interests in humanities, arts, and science, with a strong emphasis on education. People showed great respect for someone in the teaching profession; and the combination of research and teaching at a college gave Gerhard's father a prestigious station in life.

Julius Schmidt was a productive scientist, who became well known for both his original research and his publication of an annual review of organic chemistry and a textbook on organic chemistry, Synthetisch-Organische Chemie der Neuzeit, which saw several editions and was translated into English. …

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