- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Times Literary SupplementElegiac, subtle and wide-ranging in scope, Fritz Stern's book goes a long way to restoring one's hopes for a Germany that once included Einstein.
— Michael Burleigh
The French political philosopher Raymond Aron once observed that the twentieth century "could have been Germany's century." In 1900, the country was Europe's preeminent power, its material strength and strident militaristic ethos apparently balanced by a vital culture and extraordinary scientific achievement. It was poised to achieve greatness. In Einstein's German World, the eminent historian Fritz Stern explores the ambiguous promise of Germany before Hitler, as well as its horrifying decline into moral nihilism under Nazi rule, and aspects of its remarkable recovery since World War II. He does so by gracefully blending history and biography in a sequence of finely drawn studies of Germany's great scientists and of German-Jewish relations before and during Hitler's regime.
Stern's central chapter traces the complex friendship of Albert Einstein and the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Fritz Haber, contrasting their responses to German life and to their Jewish heritage. Haber, a convert to Christianity and a firm German patriot until the rise of the Nazis; Einstein, a committed internationalist and pacifist, and a proud though secular Jew. Other chapters, also based on new archival sources, consider the turbulent and interrelated careers of the physicist Max Planck, an austere and powerful figure who helped to make Berlin a happy, productive place for Einstein and other legendary scientists; of Paul Ehrlich, the founder of chemotherapy; of Walther Rathenau, the German-Jewish industrialist and statesman tragically assassinated in 1922; and of Chaim Weizmann, chemist, Zionist, and first president of Israel, whose close relations with his German colleagues is here for the first time recounted. Stern examines the still controversial way that historians have dealt with World War I and Germans have dealt with their nation's defeat, and he analyzes the conflicts over the interpretations of Germany's past that persist to this day. He also writes movingly about the psychic cost of Germany's reunification in 1990, the reconciliation between Germany and Poland, and the challenges and prospects facing Germany today.
At once historical and personal, provocative and accessible, Einstein's German World illuminates the issues that made Germany's and Europe's past and present so important in a tumultuous century of creativity and violence.
"Fritz Stern is alive to moral and historical ambiguity, arguing that there is no simple judgement on the compromises of a Max Planck, any more that there is a simple way to characterize German-Jewish relations or the circumstances that made the Holocaust possible."--London Review of Books
Paul Ehrlich: The Founder of
* * *
A natural scientist must be at once a general and a spy.
Richard Willstätter, 1913
* * *
In May 1990 I gave the opening lecture at the dedication of the new Paul Ehrlich Institute in Langen, near Frankfurt am Main. The lecture, a historical-biographical portrait, was followed by a scientific symposium. Subsequently, my friend Günther Schwerin, Paul Ehrlich's grandson, presented Rockefeller University with the complete Ehrlich Archive, which he had ingeniously retrieved after the Second World War. To make use of these materials proved irresistible, and I revised the previously unpublished lecture utilizing these new and untapped sources. I am indebted to the Rockefeller Archive Center in Tarrytown, New York, for their friendly assistance.
* * *
I am a historian with but a limited knowledge of the natural sciences. Still, I have been trying to understand certain aspects of the history of science in the decades preceding and following the First World War, chancing into this area as a result of my research on Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein, their circle of friends, and the political-scientific ambience they worked in. I was fascinated by these figures, and especially intrigued by their devotion to a science that then still seemed to be innocent, untainted. One could sense the passion that inspired their great accomplishments. What, we may ask, were theprerequisites for their commitment and success? What was the scientific ethos of the era? What factors lay behind that burst of creativity which propelled German scientists to such prodigious and pioneering achievements?
The life of an individual scientist, such as Paul Ehrlich, may help to shed light on the wellsprings of scientific progress. He was both genius and a representative figure. Though he was totally centered on and committed to his research, with little interest in the world about him, that world—and his friends and rivals—helped to shape his life. His biography shows how external factors both impeded and facilitated his creativity. Perhaps there is a certain gap in our understanding of these interrelations: literature in the natural sciences often neglects the human-historical dimension, while historians until recently have paid too little attention to the sociopolitical importance of natural scientists.
I realize that the historical guild may view my fascination with the human side of natural scientists as old-fashioned at best. The great physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz once spoke about the "inner psychological history" of science; even Einstein stressed the "reciprocity between scientific accomplishment and greatness of character." Though one can be intrigued by that "inner" history, one must not lose sight of the close connections in earlier eras between scientists and the intellectual, political, and economic world.
Sheer energy and fortitude, disciplined intuition and stamina, appear to be determinative in the life of the scientist, despite the dangers and disappointments they experience. And in Germany during the early years of the twentieth century, there were geniuses of research. The word "genius" in German has a special overtone, even a tinge of the demonic, a mysterious power and energy; a genius—whether artist or scientist—is considered to have a special vulnerability, a precariousness, a life of constant risk and often close to troubled turmoil. It was precisely in the same era that Thomas Mann embarked on his lifelong preoccupation with and analysis of the vulnerability of the artist. Artists and great scientists have a certain affinity. Someone observed that although Ehrlich "never created works of art in the strict sense, he had qualities closely akin to those of the artist." There are also many differences: the artist is commonly an isolate, living in a kind of permanent jeopardy; the scientist, by contrast, usually has an institutional home, a cluster of collegiality and even friendship that makes bearable the inevitable frictions and occasional meanspiritedness of colleagues. Ehrlich had his full taste of the good and the bad—the latter perhaps more clearly discernible in the private correspondence.
In writings by and about Ehrlich, certain words recur: "genius," "leader," "warrior-hero." This is also true of Rudolf Virchow, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and many others. It was how they were characterized, and it was the tone of public praise. Theirs was a historical moment in which often heroic individual researchers, putting their very lives at risk, forged a new world. Ehrlich's generation stood on the threshold of what the theologian Adolf Harnack termed in 1905 "science as a large-scale enterprise." And perhaps more than anyone else, Paul Ehrlich proved just how much one individual could accomplish: thanks to his discoveries in the laboratory, clinicians were able to save countless lives. The later historian Felix Gilbert was correct in observing that "in the intellectual life of the modern era, natural scientists became the new heroes."
I believe that Paul Ehrlich, born in 1854, was part of a second Age of Genius in Germany, indeed one of its key representatives. Only recently have we recognized this era for what it was, an era of pioneering discovery and invention when scientific and experimental medicine was making its first huge strides. In Germany the enormous advances made in the chemical industry during the nineteenth century, and the invention of synthetic dyes, became the foundation for progress in biological and virological research. There was widespread, unbounded faith in the perfection of empirical or positivistic science—a conviction that humans could comprehend nature and control its forces. Rudolf Virchow, physician, research scientist, and a fierce champion of liberalism against Bismarck, speaking in 1865 at the fortieth Congress of German Natural Scientists and Physicians, observed: "For us, science has become a religion." And in 1873: "We too have a creed: faith in the progress of our knowledge of the truth." Emil Du Bois-Reymond spoke of "natural science as the world conqueror in our day." Until the First World War, this was the predominant tone in the world of science and industry. At the founding convention of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Society in January 1911, the renowned chemist Emil Fischer—in Ehrlich's presence and alluding to his work—declared that the future did not lie in the conquest of colonial empires; rather, "chemistry and with it, more generally, all of natural science is the true land of boundless opportunities." And there was solid evidence to back up this faith: practical knowledge was triumphing in the struggles against infection, against epidemic diseases, against the scourge of infant mortality.
In public, many scientists averred their trust in the progress and potential of science, yet in numerous unpublished documents—private letters from Ehrlich, Einstein, Haber, and Willstätter, for example—one can sense their unpretentiousness, their doubts, their dissatisfaction with their own work. This was precisely because they were animated by such a powerful faith in science: the more lofty the aspirations of science as a collective enterprise, the more understandable the modesty of the individual researcher. Certainly there were also human frailties: ambition, jealousy, desire for fame. But Willstätter's plea to Ehrlich in 1903 was characteristic: "Please lower very greatly the scientific assessment you so generously accord me. I find it depressing to be overestimated by a research scientist for whom I have such great admiration. I feel I'm just a beginner."
The advance of natural science also had critics and opponents—Nietzsche, for example, and, in an analogous but different way, Max Weber—who sensed the profound hazards lurking in the unqualified faith in science. There were also groups of people who thought that science endangered their interests, who imagined that positivistic science threatened their monopoly on morals in education and religion. We know that various church and religious leaders opposed the claims of science. Distortions and misunderstandings abounded. Many of the great scientists experienced in themselves a sense of the mystery of the universe; they hoped to serve and aid humanity without destroying its faith in the abiding mystery of the universe.
Paul Ehrlich was born into this world of progress, which he came to enrich with singular success. He was born in 1854 in Strehlen (now a Polish town, Strzelin), near Breslau (Wroclaw), the son of a prosperous Silesian-Jewish family. His scientific interests were awakened by his mother's cousin, the distinguished pathologist Carl Weigert. Already as a medical student he was fascinated by physiological research and recognized the huge potential for physiological experimentation that industrially manufactured dyes made possible. He had a special "love," as Willstätter noted, for the new dyes, especially methylene blue and its potential as a biological reagent. And he had an intuitive grasp of the bond linking chemistry, biology, and medicine. His earliest investigations led him to the concept that governed his future work: "that chemical affinities govern all biological processes." It was "the dawn of that great age in which medicine and chemistry forged their alliance for the benefit of all mankind," as Otto Warburg wrote.
Ehrlich's path as a scientist was not an easy one. He was a loner: though a physician, he was unwilling to enter clinical practice; though a researcher, he was devoid of ambition to teach. There had already been renowned successes in biomedical research, such as Pasteur's developing a vaccine for rabies. Ehrlich worked in the developing field of immunology, convinced that the body's natural immune system could be fortified by chemical means. Finally, it was he who invented chemotherapy, indeed coined the term. But neither his passion for independence nor his work plans fitted the structure of scientific research at the time. Only the support given him by three exceptional personalities gave him the chance to develop his brilliant gifts to the full.
In 1878, the famous internist Theodor Frerichs, for a time Bismarck's personal physician, brought the young Ehrlich to the famed Charité Hospital in Berlin. Frerichs himself was convinced that the exactitude of physics and chemistry should have its analogue in medicine; under his sympathetic aegis, Ehrlich was able to dedicate himself totally to research. Frerichs recognized the young genius, of whom these lines by Theodor Fontane, written at the time, serve as a fitting description:
Gifts, who is without them? Talents—mere toys for children. Seriousness makes the man, application the genius.
For even then, the young Ehrlich was distinguished by seriousness, unswerving commitment, by his impassioned, iron concentration and his sublime forgetfulness regarding all trivialities. In 1882, Robert Koch delivered his lecture "On Tuberculosis," in which he set forth his discovery of the rod-shaped tubercle bacilli responsible for what he insisted was the infectious disease of tuberculosis. Ehrlich later wrote: "Everyone in attendance was deeply moved, and for me that evening has remained etched in my mind as my greatest scientific event." Soon thereafter Ehrlich developed an improved method of staining tubercle bacilli—and he and Koch became friends.
In fact, Frerichs and Koch became models for Ehrlich, and at the same time important promoters of his work. When Koch, only eleven years Ehrlich's senior, died in 1910, Ehrlich wrote a long obituary that reveals a good deal about his own life; the unconscious autobiographical elements of such eulogies should be listened to. He spoke of the "epoch-making work of the young doctor from Wollstein, Robert Koch," who demonstrated the "specificity of bacterial strains and their sole responsibility in the genesis of infectious diseases." Then he went on to the external circumstances that had helped Koch:
Unknown and far removed from centers of scientific research ... he was deeply engrossed in problems which the foremost scientists had struggled in vain to solve. By astute and unflagging application, he was able to provide answers so authoritative as to earn him the admiration and unqualified recognition of his contemporaries. And perhaps it was propitious that his genius and energy were given free rein to pursue his trailblazing ideas, undisturbed and unimpeded—a genius and an energy that in so exceptional a way combined to form his personality.
Was this not an apt description of Ehrlich himself?
He went on:
It seems only natural that upon such a man—champion of science, bold and victorious leader in the battle against the deadliest common epidemics, universally acclaimed cultural celebrity—the highest honors were bestowed.... All of us who knew him will always admire his masterful genius as a researcher, his superior intellect, his inexhaustible capacity for work, his prodigious energy, and, last but not least, his heroic courage. That courage enabled him to defy the greatest dangers. Through it he became the great figure he was for us all and will remain for future generations: a defender of the common welfare, a victorious commander and leader in the fight against its fiercest foes.
Commemorating the memory of a paragon, Ehrlich did not realize the extent to which he himself had come to emulate his model, but posterity is well aware of it.
Ehrlich sounded a military note, jarring perhaps today, but normal in Wilhelmine Germany and in the developing field of bacteriology; Koch himself had often invoked similar metaphors, especially in his successful struggle to put bacteriological research and knowledge at the service of German public health, improving sanitary conditions in overcrowded cities. It was also an era when the "chief" was deemed almighty, the embodiment of scientific authority, surrounded in clinic and laboratory by a retinue of subalterns. Since Ehrlich's career was also shaped by strife, his use of these military metaphors seems all the more understandable.
In March 1885, Frerichs died suddenly; his successor did not properly appreciate Ehrlich's worth and had him transferred to clinical duty—this at the cost of his scientific work. That marked the beginning of an unhappy period at the Charité for Ehrlich and his wife, Hedwig Pinkus, whom he had wed a short time before. Her love and understanding, not to mention her private wealth, were to prove enduring sources of solace and comfort for him.
In 1890, Koch announced that he had successfully created tuberculin, the sterile liquid containing substances extracted from the tubercle bacillus, which could be used in the diagnosis and cure of tuberculosis. This internationally acclaimed success led in Germany to the establishment in 1892 of a state Institute for Infectious Diseases, which was deemed a necessity in the globally competitive world of medicine. (The fact that in the same year, Bismarck's banker Gerson von Bleichröder, acting anonymously, made a million marks available for a hospital where patients would be treated in accordance with Koch's methods, has not been noted, not even in a standard biography of Koch.) In 1892, Koch brought Ehrlich, whom he held in high esteem, to the institute as "research associate." The institute was intended to deal with all infectious diseases, not just tuberculosis, particularly after tuberculin proved a failure in therapy.
Ehrlich now began to work with Emil von Behring at the Koch institute. The Koch institute in general and Behring and Ehrlich in particular benefited from the growing eagerness of the German chemical industry, Farbwerke Hoechst especially, to support academic research that would produce practical and profitable results—in this instance involving the production of immunizing serum. Behring and Ehrlich were markedly different in personality: Behring rather authoritarian and contentious, Ehrlich vulnerable and yet stubborn, reticent and even reclusive. Together they concentrated their work on fighting diphtheria: at the time, some 45,000 children in Germany alone contracted the disease every year, and half of these died agonizing deaths. Behring discovered an antitoxin, but it was Ehrlich who learned how to develop the serum in live horses by slowly increased injections and then to standardize the required dosage for humans. With the help of August Laubenheimer, research director of the chemical company Farbwerke—Hoechst, that plant was commissioned to produce the substance: "Every vial of diphtheria serum from Farbwerke-Hoechst bears the label: manufactured according to Behring-Ehrlich." Behring and Ehrlich had come to an agreement in 1892 regulating the distribution of profits between them, and their joint labors liberated humankind from a horrible scourge. Their initially successful cooperation alternated with bitter disputes. Ehrlich was convinced that Behring had taken advantage of him financially, while denigrating his superior scientific achievement.
At this point in his career, Ehrlich needed help, and he found it in the person of Friedrich Althoff, a department head in the Prussian Ministry of Education from 1882 to 1907; he was the commanding figure in Prussia's academic life. He was controversial in his time and remains so today: his achievements were great, his methods questionable. His ambition was to make Prussia's universities and research centers the best in the world, even against the will of opinionated professors with their insistence on autonomy, and in the teeth of prevailing religious biases. Althoff knew that in the battle against infectious diseases, Ehrlich was one of the most brilliant scientists anywhere—and, ultimately, one of the most successful. Soon a genuine friendship developed between the two, a bond that brought professional benefits to both men.
Althoff recognized that Ehrlich was unhappy with his subordinate position in Koch's institute, so in 1896 he set up a new state Institute for Serum Research and Serum Testing in Steglitz, a suburb of Berlin, and named Ehrlich its director. But that, too, was to prove only a temporary solution. Althoff succeeded in convincing the mayor of Frankfurt am Main, Franz Adickes, that his city's fame would be enhanced by establishing a Royal Institute for Experimental Therapy there, headed by Ehrlich and jointly financed by the city and the Prussian state, with contributions from industry and private donors—a further example of the emergence of an industrial-scientific-state complex that gave German science its all-important social setting. Ehrlich moved to Frankfurt, where the institute was inaugurated in 1899.
In 1906, a dream long cherished by Althoff and Ehrlich finally came true: the widow of the Jewish banker Georg Speyer donated an additional building to Ehrlich for his biomedical research and experimental chemotherapy, and the Speyer Foundation provided generous funding for his work. The Georg-Speyer House, as it was called, was interdisciplinary from the outset and had close ties with industry. Ehrlich was working with modest, even primitive facilities and equipment, but the institute grew, and even though operations were always kept on a tight budget, new tasks were taken on, new staff appointed. Scarce funds restricted research, and Althoff, knowing how fierce the foreign competition was and adept at raising private money, complained to Ehrlich, "It is truly lamentable that we in Germany don't also have wealthy people who can provide for our institutes along the lines of the largesse given the Pasteur Institute [in Paris].... Why can't the tycoons in Frankfurt like B. Metzler ... etc., donate millions for your institute!"
It was in Frankfurt that Ehrlich made his great theoretical and practical discoveries. Here he conducted his celebrated research on immunity, here he proved that antibody formation could be stimulated, and therefore that substances protecting against infection could be produced in strengths that made their use in medical treatment possible. In 1906 Ehrlich defined his hopes dramatically; he thought that "in the chemist's retort" substances would be created that would "be able to exert their full action exclusively on the parasite harbored within the organism and would represent ... magic bullets which seek their target of their own accord." Ehrlich's English friend and colleague, the Nobel laureate Sir Henry Dale, noted in 1950 that "Ehrlich's imaginative genius" led him to develop his side-chain theory of the formation of antibodies, which is still today the basis of chemotherapy. He searched for "substances which, by virtue of their chemical structure and combining properties, would directly attach themselves to, and be able thus to kill or weaken, the infecting organisms, but would leave the tissues of the infected patient unharmed."
Ehrlich's private letters attest to his close bonds of friendship with Althoff and report on his vexing difficulties. Althoff was his friend, benefactor, and go-between, but the main troublemaker was Behring, another protégé of Althoff's. As early as 1900, Althoff had to assure Ehrlich, "We shall never launch any campaigns against you.... In your mutual interest, the constant feuding [with Behring] must not be allowed to become a permanent fixture." Money was one problem here, as well as Behring's limited regard for Ehrlich's merits. Six years later, Ehrlich complained that Behring had been unfair to him over the diphtheria serum, and was now making new demands that would gravely injure the work of Ehrlich's institute: "A feeling of deep bitterness still wells up in me when I recall that time—not because of the material losses I suffered and have forgotten, but because of the enormous ruthlessness with which von Behring began the game and played it out. It was only thanks to my help that he could mount the saddle and his first act was to kick the man who had aided him, and whose assistance, however uncongenial, was indispensable."
But any further harm to his institute Ehrlich found intolerable: "Without being immodest, I think I can say that the Institute has everywhere won full recognition and even emulation in the development of modern research on immunity—and that not only as an Institute for testing new products—but that also my work and that of my associates have contributed importantly to the advance of modern science."
Ehrlich had wanted to dedicate his most important work to Althoff, who, understandably gratified, accepted the honor: "I have been deeply moved by your intention to dedicate the publication of your path-breaking studies on side-chain theory to me. I feel in no way deserving of such a great honor, but since in the past I have endured so many and in part truly undeserved attacks, I shall now gratefully accept this honor, equally undeserved, bestowed on me by such an outstanding friend."
And when in 1907 Althoff for reasons of health resigned from his post, Ehrlich wrote him an official letter, the text of which so pleased Althoff that he copied it out and distributed it to friends:
You have done more to further the advance of science in all fields than anyone else, and I believe we have you to thank above all others for the fact that we are still today in the leading position. May the future keep this primacy from slipping from us. I myself owe you both my entire career and the chance I had to bring my ideas to practical fruition. Shunted about as an assistant, forced into impossible conditions, totally ignored by the university, I thought myself quite useless. I never received a call to even the most minor position and was regarded as a person without a field—i.e., as totally useless. If you, with your strong hand and brilliant initiative, had not come to my aid and, in your untiring zeal and benevolent friendship, had not arranged a place where I might work, I would have been left to wither away entirely.
This generous appraisal was typical of Ehrlich, though somewhat unfair to Frerichs and the others who had earlier supported him.
Althoff died in 1908—shortly before his protégé was awarded the Nobel Prize (shared jointly with Élie Metchnikoff) for his work on immunology. Ehrlich had earned earlier distinctions, and others followed: honorary doctorates from Oxford and elsewhere, medals and honors, an honorary professorship and an imperial appointment to the rank of Privy Councillor (with the address Your Excellency, a rare high honor). Ehrlich was a founding member of the executive board of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Society. He was nominated for a second Nobel after inventing Salvarsan, but his early death prevented his receiving this very rare double distinction.
All this recognition and success came with repeated strife and animosity. For example, Ehrlich had to defend himself against attacks by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius, for whom a Nobel Institute for Physical Chemistry had been founded in 1905. Commenting in a letter to his old friend and colleague Albert Neisser on this feud, Ehrlich noted, "Physical chemists comprise one of the best-organized cliques anywhere in the world, acting in unison to push each other forward."
Ehrlich's ties were international, his fame widespread throughout the scientific community. In medicine, there already emerged something like "globalization," albeit dominated by the West. In 1904, he lectured in the United States, later in England and across Europe; his often improvised talks, as he himself described them, gained him close friends in the Anglo-American world, some of whom induced John D. Rockefeller to donate $10,000 for the support of Ehrlich's institute. He cultivated contacts with colleagues everywhere: he asked for snake venom from Africa, studied tropical diseases such as sleeping sickness, maintained close ties with Japanese and, of course, with European scientists. The major (and for a time last) international medical congress in London in 1913 feted Ehrlich as the most eminent research scientist in the world.
In 1911, Ehrlich gave a paper on Salvarsan at the Congress of Natural Scientists in Karlsruhe, the gathering, as we will see, where Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein first met; a year later, he delivered the principal lecture, "Modern Initiatives in Therapy," at Haber's Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute. Ehrlich, Haber, and Einstein: two generations of German-Jewish scientists who intellectually and materially enriched their country and enhanced its worldwide prestige. A triumvirate of diverse personalities, all three outstanding representatives of the second Age of Genius.
Ehrlich's institute—the equal and rival of the Institut Pasteur and the Rockefeller Institute—investigated the etiology of and possible therapy for various diseases and was among the first to undertake cancer research. But Ehrlich's greatest triumph—after years of experimentation—was his discovery of Salvarsan, the "magic bullet" also known as 606—605 earlier solutions having proved ineffectual. The trade name alluded to one of its ingredients, arsenic, which he, together with his Japanese colleague Sahachiro Hata, had developed as a chemotherapeutic agent against the syphilis spirochete. It made possible the most effective treatment to date for syphilis, which at the turn of the century was claiming more and more victims; its third stage—paresis—ended in wretched and painful death. The great dramas of the time, such as Ibsen's, alluded to the tragedy of syphilis, even if decorum dictated that its name be unmentioned. Only a few decades earlier, the famous English doctor Samuel Solly had praised syphilis as God's retribution for sinners, admonishing people to live a moral life (not unlike the situation today, where the battle against AIDS is waged with extremely limited funding and against similar moralizing). Through Ehrlich's work, humanity was largely freed from this scourge—a fact that the sanctimonious hypocrites of the day greeted critically.
Ehrlich himself had other worries. At the 1910 Congress of Internists in Wiesbaden, he had distributed 65,000 units of Salvarsan gratis to colleagues and was extraordinarily meticulous in following up on the results. A "Salvarsan war" erupted: countless complaints alleged adverse side effects or unsuccessful treatment. "But the most unpleasant thing," he wrote in 1910, "is that there is a marked contrast between my own personality, which is anything but bold, and my scientific conviction that the disease ought to be vanquished by one mighty, possibly hazardous, blow, rather than to apply a mild but ineffective therapy, leaving the patients to their fate."
Ehrlich's enemies gleefully made his setbacks known, and his wife noted in her diary: "Paul is in very low spirits.... He says a Brazilian told him that Professor Finger [in] Vienna had two cases of deafness in his clinic as a result of 606, considered the drug poisonous and would campaign against it." There was even a legal suit involving Salvarsan therapy, and Ehrlich had to appear in court. But Ehrlich himself unceasingly tracked the results of his cure, concerned about the effectiveness of Salvarsan, worried about improper applications of it. He knew that "the step from the laboratory to the patient's bedside ... is extraordinarily arduous and fraught with danger." Correctly sensing enemies lurking in the field, in early 1911 he wrote to his friend Simon Flexner at the Rockefeller Institute: "The past year was a very hard one for me and I really feel how nervously exhausted I am. I must also say that I could have become old and have died without having had any notion of the meanness of mankind, which I now have had to experience." Constant conflicts exacerbated the burden of a furious work schedule. But Salvarsan proved a success: Ehrlich cured countless sufferers from what had once been all too often a fatal affliction. His labors, however, did grave harm to his own health.
In 1914, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, Ehrlich's unique standing was internationally celebrated. A comprehensive commemorative volume offered a "description of his scientific contributions." Despite his motto, "Work hard, publish little," he had some 212 publications to his name by then, the first having appeared when he was only twenty-three. His colleagues admired him not just for his successful results, but for the masterly methods he employed in achieving them, which in turn expressed his unfailing sense for science's proper tasks and potential: "We are not masters of nature, but its pupils." The guiding principle at his institute was "a unified direction in research, while allowing the individual the greatest possible scope for independent work." To another American friend, Samuel Meltzer, he wrote, "I was always particularly proud of the art of `marching off' [Die Kunst des Abmarsches]"—by which he meant his ability to leave a field that had become barren. And it is true that he lost no time with matters that gave him no pleasure, leaving it to others to reap the harvest of many of his ingenious ideas. Most scientists praised his exemplary ethical attitude, and the enormous care he took in introducing new medicines. Ever self-critical, he resented the unfair, denigrating criticisms of some colleagues.
In the volume honoring Ehrlich's sixtieth birthday, Richard Willstätter wrote: "Before our eyes the images of the great thinkers and artists of the past rise up ... when we admire the universality of Paul Ehrlich's work, and recognize how versatile was his work as a chemist and how deeply, the breadth notwithstanding, he penetrated into the problems of organic chemistry.... As a chemist, Ehrlich is the pupil of no other master; he is not borne along, or even influenced, by any tide of his time; by his intuition and the power of his personality, vast new fields are being opened up for us." A genius originated the field of modern chemotherapy—a field of incomparable medical importance for our century.
Renowned for his passion for work and his scintillating spontaneous monologues about scientific questions, Ehrlich was also a loving husband and the happy father of two daughters, whose weddings he lived to see. Unlike Haber or Einstein, his family life was tranquil and happy. Prodigiously well-read in science (though not in literature), Ehrlich developed what he dubbed the technique of "diagonal reading," rapidly scanning a page from top left to bottom right, pausing only for what was important to him. He was always pressed for time. His wife commented: "Paul can only work at the very last moment." Like Haber, he relaxed by reading detective novels. Arthur Conan Doyle's portrait hung on the wall of his study, and the author sent him some of his books as presents. Perhaps he had a kind of elective affinity with Sherlock Holmes: his motto, "We have to learn how to take aim," also applied to Holmes's practiced knack for discovery. Both unearthed deadly secrets.
Ehrlich had no regard for his own health. He lived for his work, and from our perspective he seemed unwise: it was said that his absolute staples were mineral water and an all-day diet of the strongest cigars. He tended to view vacations and regular meals as disagreeable interruptions that he tolerated out of love for his family. In the winter of 1914-15, he collapsed from exhaustion and in August 1915 succumbed to a second stroke. By then, science had lost its innocence in the Great War, and Ehrlich's world lay in ruins.
Emil von Behring spoke at his open grave, lauding Ehrlich as a "magister mundi" in medical science, his personality an "anima candida": "In our harsh era of a ruthless struggle for existence, you [Du] always remained so pure and untainted in your disposition, so tender in your sentiments, that any who knew you had to sense sharp pangs of conscience if ever they dared to treat you harshly." Were these belated pangs of Behring's own conscience, a graveside confession? Nonetheless, the friend-foe had understood him.
Ehrlich scarcely had time for or interest in politics, yet we know of two somewhat contrary instances when he was a participant in historical events. In 1913, Chaim Weizmann visited Ehrlich in his laboratory and persuaded him to join the project of establishing a Jewish university in Jerusalem; Weizmann regarded Ehrlich's support as uniquely important. After a trip to Paris in February 1914, Ehrlich reported his impressions of the possible French assistance that would come for the planned university, to be financed by Edmond de Rothschild. Weizmann hoped that Ehrlich would work out a plan for a research institute at the university in Jerusalem, a project to be presented to Baron Rothschild for additional support. The outbreak of war put a quick end to the projected venture, but it is clear that Ehrlich, unlike most German Jews, wanted to champion the "Jewish-national" cause. His report on a conversation with the physician and scientist Georges Widal provides insight into his own views: "Widal is rather indifferent when it comes to [Jewish] national questions.... One factor, partially affecting his case, is that although he is Jewish, he has never had any adverse personal experiences because of this and has enjoyed a brilliant career right from the start. Of course, he is a very outstanding and capable individual."
But in consonance with the great majority of Jews in Germany, Ehrlich was also quite able to support the "German-national" side in the war. He too signed the ill-conceived Manifesto of the 93 in October 1914—undoubtedly much to the chagrin of his many friends and admirers in the Allied countries. The Ehrlich Archives offer no clue as to who might have solicited his signature, but, as we shall see in the next Chapters, other great scientists, Planck, Haber, and Willstätter for example, signed as well.
Paul Ehrlich was a Jew and remained so all his life, yet at the same time, his identity as a German was for him an absolute given. And it was as a German that he was celebrated abroad. In Germany, he suffered the disappointments that were the common lot there of all Jews. I doubt that any of the great Jewish scientists could escape the virtually unquestioned bias of the day; neither baptism nor outstanding achievement could shake society's fundamental outlook. Ehrlich triumphed after he had encountered hindrances and hostility; he was troubled by the far worse obstacles faced by fellow Jews who lacked genius. In his own case, and this was symptomatic of the times, the slights were mitigated by the personal engagement of colleagues and superiors who gave him both practical and moral support—Frerichs, Koch, Althoff, and others. At its higher levels, Germany was distinguished by harmonious creativity. Yet prejudice—and I intentionally avoid the term anti-Semitism, due to its racist and populist overtones—was practically universal.
This ressentiment of Jews had a certain seductive force for Germans, and it may have also brought them some advantage, permitting them a sense of moral superiority while categorizing certain specific traits—ruthless ambition, dogged self-assertion, a desire for power and money—as typically Jewish. That prejudice expressed a sense of one's own uprightness. At the same time, it masked a double anxiety: fear of possible contamination by those very traits that one maligned or might already be infected with; anxiety that Jews, by these very same qualities, might effectively challenge the position and intellectual patrimony of their Christian colleagues.
So German Jews encountered both animosity and friendship. The obstacles that prejudice put in their way often had a contrary effect: anti-Semitism served as the sting that spurred Jews on to overachievement, to maintain their own in often subliminal competition. The biographies of Ehrlich and his colleagues suggest that the widespread antipathy to Jews in a society marked by a high degree of assimilation proved an unintended impetus for success. Thus Wilhelmine society derived several benefits from its legacy of prejudice: Christians could enjoy the psychic satisfaction of moral superiority and society at large could benefit from the fortuitously enhanced capacity and austere dedication of Jewish scientists. Ehrlich's and Haber's achievements were an immeasurable boon to Imperial Germany, to German industry, to Germany's international prestige. Shulamit Volkov has investigated this pattern of Jewish success in medicine and the natural sciences: the talented young Jewish researcher was initially often placed at a disadvantage and appointed to less demanding posts; he was frequently passed over and condemned to the limbo of a nontenured lectureship (Privatdozent) for longer than others; yet this allowed him time to pursue his own research and develop as a specialist. Ehrlich was spared having to witness the destruction of this unique bond of Christian-Jewish cooperation, or to suffer the abominations of later years.
This newly established Paul Ehrlich Institute is living proof of historic change. Ehrlich had once commented that if he had to, he could work in a barn, and the institute named for him today is a far cry from a barn. But change also brings new hazards. Today the value of the natural sciences is generally allowed, as are their enormous costs, but science has lost its former innocence, and the technology it helped to create, in all its ambiguity about human life, is a source of concern. The person in the white coat is no longer quite the god he or she once was—true still in my childhood; they too have been demythologized. They too are measured by the degree to which they act responsibly. Increasingly, current science has become "big science," and is dominated less by individual geniuses or giants like Koch, Ehrlich, or, more recently, perhaps, Robert Oppenheimer.
The name of Paul Ehrlich recalls an illustrious era and remains an admonition, a specific summons to moral and civic responsibility. The German catastrophe in part made possible by German science enfeebled its scientific community. German scientists committed terrible atrocities or kept silent in the face of crimes that violated all human decency. German science and the nation as a whole have been offered something grand and rare in human history and life: a second chance, an open door to a new beginning in a new Europe. I wish the Paul Ehrlich Institute every success in realizing this opportunity and this promise. To conclude with a variation on a favorite phrase of Ehrlich, I wish it "the four essentials—money, patience, skill, and luck."