Emmy the student and Emmy the communist!

Emmy Noether’s birthday on 23 March saw her honoured with a Google Doodle, which of course led to various people posting brief biographies of Erlangen’s most famous science personality or drawing attention to existing posts in the Internet.

Emmy Google Doodle

Almost all of these posts contain two significant errors concerning Emmy’s career that I would like to correct here. For those interested I have written earlier posts on Emmy’s family home in Erlangen and the problems she went through trying to get her habilitation, the German qualification required to be able to teach at university.

The first oft repeated error concerns Emmy’s education and I quote a typical example below:

Today she is celebrated for her contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics, but in 20th-century Bavaria, Noether had to fight for every bit of education and academic achievement. Women were not allowed to enrol at the University of Erlangen, so Noether had to petition each professor to attend classes.

As a teenager Emmy displayed neither an interest nor a special aptitude for mathematics but rather more for music and dance. She attended the Städtische Höhere Töchterschule (the town secondary girls’ school), now the Marie-Therese-Gymnasium, and in 1900 graduated as a teacher for English and French at the girls’ school in Ansbach. In 1903 she took her Abitur exam externally at the Königlichen Realgymnasium in Nürnberg. The Abitur is the diploma from German secondary school qualifying for university admission or matriculation. Previous to this she had been auditing some mathematics courses in Göttingen as a guest student with the personal permission of the professors whose courses she visited, hence the claim above. However she had become ill and had returned home to Erlangen. In 1903 the laws were changed in Bavaria allowing women to register at university for the first time. Emmy registered as a regular student at the University of Erlangen in 1903 and graduated with a PhD in mathematics in 1907, under the supervision of Paul Gordon, in invariant theory. She was only the second woman in Germany to obtain a PhD in mathematics. In 1908 she became a member of the Circolo Matematico di Palermo and in 1909 a member of the Deutschen Mathematiker-Vereinigung. In 1915 Hilbert invited her to come to the University of Göttingen, as his assistant. It was here in 1915 that Hilbert suggested that she should habilitate with the well know consequences.

Emmy remained in Göttingen until the Nazis came to power in 1933. She held guest professorships in Moscow in 1928/29 and in Frankfurt am Main in 1930. She was awarded the Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Prize for her complete scientific work in 1932 and held the plenary lecture at the International Mathematical Congress in Zurich also in 1932. In 1933 when the Nazis came to power she was expelled from her teaching position in Göttingen and it is here that the second oft repeated error turns up.

On coming to power the Nazis introduced the so-called Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums, (The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service). This was a law introduced by the Nazis to remove all undesirables from state employment, this of course meant the Jews but also, socialists, communists and anybody else deemed undesirable by the Nazi Party. Like many of her colleges in the mathematics department at Göttingen Emmy was removed from her teaching position under this law. In fact the culling in the mathematics department was so extreme that it led to a famous, possibly apocryphal, exchange between Bernhard Rust (and not Hermann Göring, see comments) and David Hilbert.

Rust: “I hear you have some problems in the mathematics department at Göttingen Herr Professor”.

Hilbert: “No, there are no problems; there is no mathematics department in Göttingen”.

The Wikipedia article on the history of the University Göttingen gives the story as follows (in German)

Ein Jahr später erkundigte sich der Reichserziehungsminister Bernhard Rust anlässlich eines Banketts bei dem neben ihm platzierten Mathematiker David Hilbert ob das mathematische Institut in Göttingen durch die Entfernung der jüdischen, demokratischen und sozialistischen Mathematiker gelitten habe. Hilbert soll in seiner ostpreußischen Mundart (laut Abraham Fraenkel, Lebenskreise, 1967, S. 159) erwidert haben: „Jelitten? Dat hat nich jelitten, Herr Minister. Dat jibt es doch janich mehr.“

The source here is given as Abraham Fraenkel in his autobiography Lebenkreise published in 1967.

This translates as follows:

One year later [that is after the expulsions in 1933] the Imperial Education Minister Bernhard Rust, who was seated next to the mathematician David Hilbert at a banquet, inquired, whether the Mathematics Institute at Göttingen had suffered through the removal of the Jewish, democratic and socialist mathematicians. Hilbert is said to have replied in his East Prussian dialect” Suffered? It hasn’t suffered, Herr Minister. It doesn’t exist anymore”

It is usually claimed that Emmy lost her position because she was Jewish, a reasonable assumption but not true. Emmy lost her position, like many other in Göttingen, because the Nazis thought she was a communist. Like many European universities in the 1920s and 30s Göttingen was a hot bed of radical intellectual socialism. Emmy had been a member of a radical socialist party in the early twenties but changed later to the more moderate SPD, who were also banned by the Nazis. However it was her guest professorship in Moscow that proved her undoing. Because she reported positively on her year in Russia the Nazis considered her to be a communist and this was the reason for her expulsion from the university in 1933.

Initially Emmy, after her expulsion, actually applied for a position at the University of Moscow but the attempts by the Russian topologist Pavel Alexandrov to get her a position got bogged down in the Russian bureaucracy and so when, through the good offices of Hermann Weyl, she received the offer of a guest professorship in America at Bryn Mawr College she accepted. In America she taught at Bryn Mawr and the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton but tragically died of cancer of the uterus in 1935.


Filed under History of Mathematics, Ladies of Science

18 responses to “Emmy the student and Emmy the communist!

  1. Phillip Helbig

    As you wrote, it might be apocryphal, so presumably there is no source, but I remember reading this celebrated exchange somewhat differently:

    Göring: How has mathematics in Göttingen improved since it has been rid of Jewish influence?

    Hilbert? Mathematics in Göttingen? There isn’t any anymore.

    • Phillip Helbig

      Hibert? —> Hilbert:

    • The anecdote appears in Constance Reid’s biography Hilbert, unsourced. The wording is closer to your rendition, and the Nazi official is the newly appointed minister of education (i.e., Bernard Rust), not Hermann Göring, which does seem more likely.

      • Phillip Helbig

        Yes, now that I think of it, it was the Minister of Education.

        I’m sure I read it in German.

        Constance Reid! What a blast from the past. Growing up on Asimov in the 70s, I did read books by others as well, including her A Long Way from Euclid.

      • Phillip Helbig

        Google returns only two hits for “Mathematik in Göttingen gibt es nicht mehr”:

        http://www.gute-nachrichten.com.de/2012/01/kultur/jewish-voice-from-germany/ (almost certainly a retelling from some other source)

        https://www.yumpu.com/de/document/view/5008547/einsteins-kolleginnen-kompetenzzentrum/23 (also probably a retelling)

        I’ll have to check if it is in Pais’s biography of Einstein.

      • According to both the English and German Wikipedia articles on David Hilbert, which I didn’t think to consult before, it was indeed Bernhard Rust, the Prussian Minister of Culture and Imperial Minister of Education, and not Hermann Goering.

        However Hermann Goering would not have been an unlikely partner for this conversation as he was Minister President of Prussia, Göttingen a Prussian university and David Hilbert, at that time, the most famous mathematician in the world.

      • Judging by the version I have reproduced above, Abraham Fraenkel seems to have been the origin of the anecdote in his autobiography

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  3. Phil Harmsworth

    Is there any particular reason for generally referring to female mathematicians/scientists by their first names, while males are referred to by their surnames?

    • Phillip Helbig

      Let’s see: Mr Galilei is usually referred to as Galileo, I don’t even know the last names of Aristarchus, Anaximander, Thales etc. 🙂

      Seriously, you have a good point. I’ve always objected to this. Once on a selection committee someone had a short list of names, where for the men it was just the names and for the women with “Mrs” in front, also in the reports etc. I got this changed. Sometimes in government offices it has a list of names and offices and has for men just the names and perhaps the title, but for women there is the “Miss” or “Mrs” as well. Always object to this.

      Once in an introductory physics course, the professor referred to “Wu”. Only when someone asked a question and used “he” to refer to “Wu” did the professor correct the student. That is how it should be done.

      Hungarian has always had a single pronoun for all genders. Swedish recently introduced one. Though regarded by some as too politically correct, it might survive, as did the politically motivated deprecation of the formal second-person pronoun. (In English, only this one, ye/you, survived; “thou” is obsolete. Interestingly, though officially it applies to both singular and plural now, it is widely regarded as singular, leading to constructions such as “you all” or “y’all” in the States. And if one wants to underline the fact that not just the plural is meant, but really all, then there is “all y’all”. Really.) One motivation is not to make a distinction when it is not necessary (this is still possible, of course), but also to include people who don’t uniquely identify in a two-valued gender system.

      • Phillip Helbig

        My comment addresses a slightly different problem: making clear it is a woman via a title, when this is not done for men. You mention a similar problem.

        As I said, some languages even have a common pronoun. Others have masculine and feminine forms of titles. Some have masculine and feminine forms of last names. So, a general solution is difficult.

    • I’m not actually sure that they do. I don’t know of any other examples other than Emmy who is, for me at least, rather special. I refer to her by her middle name, her first name was Amelie, because I live in her home town and to the inhabitants of Erlangen Emmy is Emmy. Also Noether could equally well be her father Max or her brother Felix, both prominent German Mathematicians, although neither of them in the same class as Emmy.

      On Phillip’s point Galileo is only Galileo in English, in German he is referred to by his family name Galilei. The use of names in the history of science is rather strange. Tycho Brahe is generally referred to simply as Tycho, whereas Johannes Kepler is almost invariably Kepler. Why do we refer to some scholars by their initials but others by their forenames? Some we refer to by their full, often impressive collection, of forenames, others just by their first forename. There don’t seem to be any form of consistent rules for the use of names.

      • I had never thought of this before, but now I think it may be an area of inquiry. Is this just pure chance or a strange mix of the naming conventions of the country of which the scientist is from and the first people that spread his work?

        Regarding Galileo I can assure you that in portuguese speaking countries he is also know as Galileo (and I suspect that it is the same in most countries whose languages evolved from latin).

        On the other hand i thought about some portuguese scientists’ names and almost invariably they are know by two names, usually the first and last.

      • telescoper

        All this talk about Galileo neglects the important work done by his less well-known collaborators, Figaro and Magnifico..

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