Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

The Nobel Laureates


Jacobus Henricus van't Hoff

30 August 1852, Rotterdam - 1 March 1911, Berlin-Steglitz

The Dutch scientist Jacobus Henricus van't Hoff studied mathematics at Leiden University and chemistry in Bonn and Paris. He was awarded his doctorate at the Utrecht University in 1874. He worked from 1896 until his death as an honorary professor at Berliner Universität and was a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

Among other things Van't Hoff was a founder of stereochemistry, a field that studies the spatial arrangement of atoms and groups of atoms within the molecule.

He was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1901 for his work on the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure.

Emil Fischer

9 October 1852, Euskirchen - 15 July 1919, Berlin-Wannsee

Emil Fischer came to Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in 1892. In 1900 the first Institute of Chemistry moved into a new, then ultra-modern building in Hessische Strasse. Fischer was its director for almost 30 years. In 1911 he founded the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the predecessor of the Max Planck Society.

As a founder of biochemistry, Fischer was of the most important natural-product chemists in the 19th and 20 centuries. He conducted fundamental studies on the structure, synthesis and reactivity of carbohydrates, amino acids, tannins and uric acid derivatives. He also developed the lock-and-key theory of enzyme action and synthesized glucose, caffeine and barbituric acid derivatives as a sleeping drug.

Fischer was the first German chemist to be awarded Nobel Prize in 1902 - for his work on sugar and purine. The Emil Fischer Haus, Humboldt-Universität's Institute of Chemistry on the Adlershof Campus, is named after him.

Adolf von Baeyer

31 October 1835, Berlin - 20 August 1917, Starnberg

Adolf von Baeyer studied mathematics and physics in Berlin and later switched to chemistry in Heidelberg. In 1860 he qualified as a professor at Berliner Universität and became an associate lecturer (Privatdozent). After teaching at the Berlin Industrial Institute (Gewerbeinstitut), he returned to the university as an associate professor of chemistry in 1866 and stayed until 1872.

Von Baeyer synthesized the dye 'indigo' and determined its molecular structure by experimental means. Among his other successes was the synthetic production of uric acid; he conducted this work with Emil Fischer. His theoretical research covered virtually the entire field of organic chemistry. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1905 for his achievements in dye chemistry.

Eduard Buchner

20 May 1860, Munich - 13 August 1917, Focsani, Romania

Eduard Buchner studied chemistry and botany at the University of Munich, where he also became a lecturer and professor. He spent the longest period of his career in Berlin, where from 1898 until 1909 he taught at the Agricultural College (Landwirtschaftliche Hochschule) Berlin, which was incorporated as a faculty of Humboldt-Universität in 1934.

Using fermentation experiments with chemically killed yeast cells, Buchner proved that it was not the living yeast cells that were necessary for fermentation, but an enzyme produced by the cells.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1907 for his biochemical research and his discovery of cell-free fermentation.

Richard Willstätter

13 August 1872, Karlsruhe - 4 August 1942, Locarno

Richard Willstätter had a storybook career as an organic chemist: he was awarded his doctorate in 1894, qualified as a professor in 1896, and became an associate professor in 1902 - all in Munich. He was appointed to the newly founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry in 1912 and taught simultaneously at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. In 1916 he returned to Munich, where he gave up his professorship in 1924 because of the rising anti-Semitism. He later emigrated to Switzerland.

Willstätter's research focused (among other things) on dye chemistry, photosynthesis and enzymes.

In 1915 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his studies of dyes in the plant kingdom, especially chlorophyll.

Fritz Haber

9 December 1868, Breslau - 29 January 1934, Basel

Fritz Haber studied chemistry in Berlin, Heidelberg and Zurich. In 1906 he came as a professor to Berliner Universität, where he became an honorary professor of physical chemistry in 1912 and a full professor of chemistry in 1920. In 1911 he was appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry. He was forced to vacate these positions in 1933 because of his Jewish origin. He emigrated to England.

Haber is the inventor of a method by which ammonia can be extracted from nitrogen and hydrogen. The Haber-Bosch process for the production of reactive nitrogen, which was developed to application maturity by Carl Bosch, is not only used in fertilizer production; it was also used to produce chlorine gas in both world wars.

Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for the discovery of ammonia synthesis.

Walther Nernst

25 June 1864, Briesen, West Prussia - 18 November 1941, Oberzibelle/Upper Lusatia

Walter Nernst became a professor of physical chemistry at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in 1905 and director of the Institute of Physics in 1925. He was Rector of the university in the 1921/22 academic year. Nernst was professor of experimental physics from 1924 until retiring with emeritus status in 1933.

He was a co-founder of modern physical chemistry and did pioneering work in the field of electro- and thermochemistry. Among other things, he formulated the Nernst Distribution Law in 1890, invented the Nernst lamp (a precursor of the light bulb) in 1897, and discovered the Nernst Law of Electrical Nerve Stimulus Threshold in 1899. In 1906 he discovered the Nernst heat theorem, better known as the Third Law of Thermodynamics. Nernst was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1920 in recognition of his work in thermochemistry.

The chemistry/physics lecture-hall building on Humboldt-Universität's Adlershof Campus (natural sciences) is called Walther-Nernst-Haus in his honour.

Peter Debye

24 March 1884, Maastricht, Netherlands - 2 November 1966, Ithaca, USA

After holding professorships in Utrecht, Zurich and Leipzig, Peter Debye was professor of physics in Berlin, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics from 1934 to 1940, and a full member of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin as from 1937. He emigrated to the United States in 1940.

Debye did pioneering work on determining the structure of substances in their solid, liquid and gaseous states. In 1912 he worked on chemistry at very low temperatures and discovered the Debye law in the process. In 1915, together with Paul Scherrer (1890-1969), he developed the Debye-Scherrer method for analysing crystal lattices.

In 1936 the physicist was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on crystal physics, quantum theory and dipole theory.

Adolf Butenandt

24 March 1903, Bremerhaven - 18 January 1995, Munich

After studying chemistry and biology in Marburg, Adolf Butenandt devoted himself to hormone research. Within a few years he succeeded in isolating the main sex hormones and determining their structure. He came to Berlin in 1936 as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Biochemistry, where he focused on virus research, among other priorities. From 1938 to 1944 he was simultaneously honorary professor of biochemistry at Berliner Universität.

In 1939 Butenandt was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (jointly with Leopold Ruzicka) for the identification of the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone and androsterone. However, he was prevented from accepting the award by the Nazi regime.

Otto Hahn

8 March 1879, Frankfurt-am-Main - 28 July 1968, Göttingen

From 1906 the chemist Otto Hahn was a colleague of Emil Fischer at Berliner Universität, where a 'carpenter's workshop' in the Institute of Chemistry became his laboratory. Starting in 1907 he worked as an associate lecturer at the university and became an associate professor of physical chemistry in 1910. Starting in 1912, he built up a working group at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry and became the director of his own department in 1926.

In 1917 Hahn and his long-time collaborator Lise Meitner discovered protactinium.

Starting in 1934 they both studied the irradiation of uranium with neutrons. Their joint work was stopped by the Nazis, since Lise Meitner was forced to flee. Together with Fritz Strassmann (1902-1980) Otto Hahn conducted the first nuclear fission experiment in 1938. Lise Meitner gave the first physical interpretation of the process by letter in 1939. In 1944 Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his discovery of the fission of heavy (uranium) atomic nuclei. He was not able to receive the prize until 1946, after being released from captivity as a prisoner of war.

Otto Diels

23 January 1876, Hamburg - 7 March 1954, Kiel

Otto Diels was an undergraduate student, did his doctorate and qualified as a professor under Emil Fischer at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität's Institute of Chemistry. He was an associate professor of organic chemistry from 1914 to 1916 and then moved to Universität Kiel.

Diels laid the foundation for a new direction of research in chemistry, known as the ketene chemistry. He also helped elucidate the structure of certain chemical substances: the steroids, which include cholesterol.

He became famous for his discovery of a general principle of chemical reactions, which was later named after him and his student Kurt Alder as the Diels-Alder reaction. They were both awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950.


Wilhelm Wien

13 January 1864, Gaffke, East Prussia - 30 August 1928, Munich

Wilhelm Wien studied mathematics and natural sciences in Göttingen and went on to study mathematics and physics in Berlin. From 1883 to 1885 he worked in Hermann von Helmholtz's laboratory and was awarded his doctorate in 1886. In 1892 he qualified as a professor at Berliner Universität, but left after accepting a professorship in Aachen.

Wien researched the relationship between the maximum intensity of radiation in relation to the temperature of the radiator. He formulated the displacement law that is named after him in 1893/94 and Wien's radiation law in 1896. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in this field in 1911.

Max von Laue

9 October 1879, Pfaffendorf near Koblenz - 24 April 1960, Berlin

Max von Laue studied physics at several universities, including Berlin. He received his doctorate under Max Planck at Berliner Universität in 1903, and qualified as a professor three years later. He worked as an associate lecturer in Berlin until he went to Munich in 1909. He returned to Berliner Universität as a professor in 1919 and began working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics.

In 1912, together with Walter Friedrich and Paul Knipping, von Laue discovered the diffraction of X-rays by crystals. This explained both the wave nature of X-rays and the lattice structure of crystals.

Von Laue was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for this work in 1914.

Max Planck

23 April 1858, Kiel - 4 October 1947, Göttingen

Max Planck already spent a year in Berlin as an undergraduate student of physics in 1878/79, during which he heard Hermann von Helmholtz and Gustav Kirchhoff. Ten years later, in 1889, he was appointed associate professor of theoretical physics at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. Another three years later he was awarded the chair of theoretical physics. He was appointed Rector in 1913/14. He remained actively connected with the university for almost ten years after retiring with emeritus status in 1926.

Planck is considered the founder of quantum theory. He discovered that energy is released by a body not regularly, but in jumps, or quanta. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918 for this quantum effect, which is named after him.

This outstanding physicist is honoured by a monument in the Cour d'Honneur in front of the west wing of the university's main building.

Albert Einstein

14 March 1879, Ulm - 18 April 1955, Princeton, USA

In 1914 Max Planck succeeded in persuading Albert Einstein to become a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, and on 1 April 1914 Einstein was appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics. From the 1915 summer semester until the 1928/29 winter semester he lectured at Berliner Universität.

Einstein's main work, the theory of relativity, revolutionized our understanding of space and time. His work on this was published in 1905 under the title 'On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies'. In Berlin, Einstein found the peace and time to finish his great work. He published it in 1916 together with a paper on the Einstein-de Haas effect.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect, which he had also published in 1905.

Gustav Hertz

22 July 1887, Hamburg - 30 October 1975, Berlin

Gustav Hertz studied physics in Göttingen, Munich and Berlin, focusing on the newly developing field of quantum mechanics. He worked on his doctorate under Heinrich Rubens at Berliner Universität between 1909 and 1911 and became an assistant at the Institute of Physics, where he worked until 1925. There followed a brief interlude in Halle, after which he took over a professorship at the TH (Technical University) Charlottenburg, from which he resigned in 1935 because of the Nazi racial laws.

In Berlin Hertz studied the effect of electron collisions on atoms, together with James Franck. In 1925 the two scientists received the Nobel Prize for Physics for the Franck-Hertz experiment.

James Franck

26 August 1882, Hamburg - 21 May 1964, Göttingen

James Franck studied in Berlin and was awarded his doctorate there under Emil Warburg; he qualified as a professor in 1911. This was the time when his collaboration began with Gustav Hertz at the Institute of Physics of Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. It led to a spectacular result after only two years of research. The physicists conducted impact tests with electrons and atoms in 1913. They made the discovery that (mercury) atoms that are in the ground state cannot absorb energy below a certain threshold, which was important for the development of quantum theory.

The two scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1925 for the discovery of these laws.

Werner Heisenberg

5 December 1901, Würzburg - 1 February 1976, Munich

The physicist Werner Heisenberg did his degree in Munich in the minimum study period of three years and was appointed to Universität Leipzig in 1927 at the young age of 26.

From 1942 to 1945 he headed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin-Dahlem, and also taught as a professor at Berliner Universität. He played a leading role in the uranium project of the Army Ordnance Office, a fact that was criticized by some colleagues.

Heisenberg had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics as early as 1932 for the Uncertainty Principle, which is named after him. With this principle Heisenberg formulated a fundamental statement of quantum mechanics: that the position and momentum of a particle can never be measured simultaneously.

Erwin Schrödinger

12 August 1887, Vienna - 4 January 1961, Vienna

After working as professor in Breslau, Jena and Zurich, the Viennese physicist Erwin Schrödinger accepted an appointment to Berliner Universität in 1927 and became Max Planck's successor in the chair of theoretical physics. Schrödinger is famous for wave mechanics, which he founded in 1926. He introduced the wave properties of electrons into the existing atomic models and developed a differential equation to describe the electrons in atoms: the Schrödinger Equation.

The co-founder of quantum mechanics resigned his position in Berlin in 1933 in protest against the Nazis and went to England. Immediately after his arrival in Oxford in October 1933, Schrödinger heard the news that the 1933 Nobel Prize for Physics had been awarded to him and Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac - in recognition of the discovery and application of new formulations of atomic theory.

Humboldt-Universität's information and communication centre on the Adlershof science campus is called Erwin Schrödinger Zentrum in his honour.

Walter Bothe

8 January 1881, Oranienburg - 8 February 1957, Heidelberg

The experimental physicist Walter Bothe studied physics at Berliner Universität from 1908 to 1912. One year later he became an assistant at the Institute of Physics of the Agricultural College (Landwirtschaftliche Hochschule), Berlin, and later moved to the Reich Physical and Technical Institute (Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt). In 1925 he qualified as a professor under Max Planck and became an associate professor at Berliner Universität. He went to Giessen in 1929. Bothe's works made an important contribution to the foundation of modern nuclear physics, which deals with the structure and behaviour of atomic nuclei. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1954 for developing the coincidence method and the related discoveries.

Max Born

11 December 1882, Breslau - 5 January 1970, Göttingen

In 1901 Max Born started studying first law and moral philosophy, and later mathematics, physics and astronomy, in Breslau, Heidelberg, Zurich, Cambridge and Göttingen. He was awarded his doctorate in 1906 in Göttingen, where he was initially an associate lecturer. He then became an associate professor of theoretical physics at Berliner Universität, where he worked with Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Walther Nernst. In 1919 he received his first professorship in Frankfurt-am-Main.

Born worked on the principles of quantum mechanics, which describes processes at the atomic and subatomic level. For this research he was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize for Physics.


Emil von Behring

15 March 1854, Hansdorf/West Prussia - 31 March 1917, Marburg

Emil von Behring, bacteriologist and serologist, received his medical training at the 'Pépinière', Berlin's military medical institute. He was awarded his doctorate at Berliner Universität in 1878. After various positions as a military physician, he joined Robert Koch's Institute for Infectious Diseases as an assistant in 1889. He soon achieved successes in the fight against such diseases as diphtheria and tetanus.

For a long time he was called the 'saviour of the children' because of his research and scientific achievements in the field of diphtheria, which killed almost every second child at that time. In 1901 he received the first Nobel Prize for Medicine for the development of the diphtheria serum.

Robert Koch

11 December 1843, Clausthal - 27 May 1910, Baden-Baden

The physician and microbiologist Robert Koch discovered the cause of tuberculosis in 1882. Koch was the first physician who succeeded in identifying a pathogenic microorganism.

Starting in 1880 Koch worked at the Royal Health Office (Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt) in Berlin. In 1885 he was appointed professor of internal medicine and hygiene at the Medical Faculty of Berliner Universität, a chair that was especially created for him. He was also head of the Institute of Hygiene and from 1891 director of the newly founded Institute of Infectious Diseases. Koch, who also discovered the pathogens that cause anthrax and cholera, is the founder of modern bacteriology and clinical infectiology, and to some extent of tropical medicine.

In 1905 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his discovery of the pathogens that cause various infectious diseases.

Paul Ehrlich

14 March 1854, Strehlen/Silesia - 20 August 1915, Bad Homburg

Chemist, physician, serologist and immunologist, Paul Ehrlich is regarded as the founder of chemotherapy. After graduating from medical school he continued his clinical training at Berlin's Charité Hospital. He worked at the Charité from 1878 to 1887, first as an assistant and later as a senior physician. In 1891 Robert Koch appointed him to the newly founded Institute of Infectious Diseases. Ehrlich moved to Frankfurt-am-Main in 1899.

He developed the first drug treatment for syphilis and was also involved in the development of the serum against diphtheria. In 1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine - together with the Russian Ilya Metchnikoff - in recognition of their work on immunity.

Albrecht Kossel

16 September 1853, Rostock - 5 July 1927, Heidelberg

Starting in 1883, the physician and physiologist Albrecht Kossel was head of the chemistry department of the Physiological Institute at Berliner Universität's Medical Faculty; he was appointed as an associate professor in 1887. Almost ten years later he accepted a professorship at Universität Marburg.

Albrecht Kossel's field was physiological chemistry, especially the chemistry of tissues and cells.

In 1910 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on cell chemistry.

Otto Warburg

8 October 1883, Freiburg im Breisgau - 1 August 1970, Berlin

Otto Warburg was a biochemist, physician and physiologist. He received his doctorate under Emil Fischer at Berliner Universität and also completed medical school in Heidelberg with a doctorate. In 1918 he was appointed head of the Department of Physiology at the newly founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Biology in Berlin-Dahlem. In the period from 1921 to 1923 he was also an associate professor of physiology at the Medical Faculty of Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Cell Physiology was opened in 1930 in the course of the differentiation of the scientific disciplines. Warburg became its director and remained in the position until 1967.

His scientific contributions focused, among other things, on the photosynthesis of plants and the metabolism of tumours. He decoded the mechanism of cell respiration, for which he received the 1931 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Hans Spemann

27 June 1869, Stuttgart - 12 September 1941, Freiburg im Breisgau

In 1914 the biologist Hans Spemann was appointed to the newly founded Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Biology in Berlin-Dahlem and took over the department for the developmental mechanics of animals. At the same time he became an honorary professor of zoology at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. His main area of research was the early embryonic stage of various species of newt and frog. Spemann conducted his first important experiments on cell division in 1902. He succeeded, for example, in separating the two cells of the two-cell stage of a salamander, in this way artificially creating twins.

In 1919 he moved to Universität Freiburg.

He was awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on experimental developmental physiology.

Werner Forssmann

29 August 1904, Berlin - 1 June 1979, Schopfheim

Werner Forssmann is known for his self-experiment on cardiac catheterization. After studying medicine and receiving his doctorate at Berliner Universität, he worked in a small hospital in Eberswalde. In 1929, after his applications to experiment on patients were rejected, the 25-year-old inserted a rubber tube into a vein in his arm up to his right ventricle, documenting it with an x-ray image. However, this spectacular experiment found little resonance in the medical world. Even Professor Sauerbruch of Charité Hospital - Forssmann's new workplace - did not think much of the experiment.

The method of diagnosing heart disease with a catheter was not taken up again until ten years later - by American scientists. As a late recognition of his work, Forssmann received the Nobel Prize for Medicine on 18 October 1956 - together with André Frédéric Cournand and Dickinson Woodruff Richards. The award honoured their discoveries on cardiac catheterization and pathological changes in the circulatory system.

In 1977 Forssmann was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Medical Faculty of Humboldt-Universität.


Theodor Mommsen

30 November 1817, Garding - 1 November 1903, Berlin

After studying law at Kiel, Theodor Mommsen accepted professorships in Leipzig, Zurich and Breslau. In 1858 he came to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, where he was able to realize his long-championed project: a collection of Latin inscriptions, the Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum. In 1861 he also took over the chair of roman archaeology at Berliner Universität. He worked at the university for over forty years until his death in 1903. He was its Rector in 1874/75.

Mommsen was a learned, but also politically active person. He is best known to the general public for his 'Roman History', which was published in four volumes. In 1902 he was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Literature for his source editions and works on Roman and legal history.

There is a monument to the ancient historian and jurist in the courtyard in front of the west wing of the main building.