How a chemist became the first German female professor

How a chemist became the first German female professor

V100 years ago there were no programs to promote women in science. Nevertheless, she made it: against much resistance, the German-Baltic chemist and botanist Margarete Baroness von Wrangell became the first full professor in Germany. The admission of women to university studies was less than a quarter of a century ago: in 1900, the Grand Duchy of Baden was the first country to allow female students to enroll. Bavaria followed, and from 1904 women were also able to study at the Württemberg universities. Margarete von Wrangell enrolled at the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen in 1904 and completed her studies with a doctoral thesis in chemistry, summa cum laude. She then became one of the first German chair assistants and in 1923 – against the will of many male colleagues – full professor at the then Agricultural Academy in Hohenheim and head of the Institute for Plant Nutrition.

Wrangell’s appointment had been the subject of heated debate in the university’s senate: at the senate meeting, the geologist Felix Plieninger asked whether a woman would be able to head an institute with male staff. With the personnel proposal, the teachers’ convention was placed in a predicament that was “quite bad”. The hostilities did not stop even after Margarete von Wrangell was appointed, they even went as far as allegations of plagiarism. So to this day the question remains as to why she in particular managed to become a professor. The rise of Wrangells is astonishing: she entered the deeply bourgeois university world as a noblewoman, she had grown up in Moscow and what was then Reval and was therefore not even from Württemberg. Throughout her life she did not shy away from questioning established doctrines.

“I have many struggles in my profession,” wrote Margarete von Wrangell in 1923. “I am the first full female professor in Germany. I have also been publicly recognized by some scientific greats. This has earned me the enmity of many; but my institute is a creation that will remain of enduring value and benefit.”

She had political flair

The Baden-Württemberg Science Minister Petra Olschowski (Greens) and Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) honored the scientist on Monday with a ceremony in the ballroom of today’s University of Hohenheim. The Heidelberg social historian Katja Patzel-Mattern held the keynote speech. She has delved deeply into the life and political circumstances of the Wrangells’ appointment. There are personal and structural reasons for her success: “Due to her origins in the Baltic nobility, she had the material means to spend time abroad, for example. She was familiar with science because there were other scientists in the family. She was also assertive and good at building networks.” There was something else: Margarete von Wrangell had a political flair.

After the defeat in World War I, there was great political interest in solving food security issues in the still young Weimar Republic. Germany was cut off from foreign markets. Hunger and poverty were direct consequences of the war, and food was still rationed after the war ended. Due to hyperinflation, 1923 was the crisis year par excellence for the first German republic. Von Wrangell knew how to take advantage of the food supply issue. “She was good at selling herself and conveying the value of her scientific research to society,” says Patzel-Mattern. The chemist researched artificial fertilization. The question was how plant growth could be accelerated without phosphate fertilizers, which Germany could not import at the time. However, their method of better exploiting the phosphates present in the soil was not so easy to reproduce later.

100 years after von Wrangell’s appointment, the proportion of female professors at German universities is still only a quarter. “We need such role models, support measures and flexible qualification plans,” says Patzel-Mattern. “Women also need networks – and they have to make it clear where they want to go with their science.”

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