An historical institute in the United States has purchased the private archive of a prominent Jewish German scientist, documenting his discoveries and persecution.
The tranche, which has never before been made public, came from Dr Georg Bredig, the “father of catalytic chemistry,” with thousands of photos and documents comprising notes and correspondence with Nobel Prize winning peers.
Purchased by the Science History Institute in Philadelphia with support from the Walder Foundation, the archive runs from the 1880s to the 1930s, telling the story of a prominent Jewish scientist, the dawn of physical chemistry, and the rush to leave Nazi-occupied Germany.
“Bringing this collection to the Institute fulfils Georg Bredig’s wish that these documents be preserved so that future generations can study them,” said Robert Anderson, the Institute’s president.
“They are significant not only to scholars of the history of science but to Holocaust scholars as well.”
Bredig introduced the model reaction methodology to catalytic research, discovering new catalytic phenomena and asymmetric catalysis. He also explored the relationships between catalytic activity and the physical state of metals.
Scholars say the archive offers a snapshot of the field of physical chemistry in its early years, and includes correspondence with early Nobel laureates in chemistry including Jacobus Henricus van’t Hoff, Svante Arrhenius, Fritz Haber and Wilhelm Ostwald.
It also documents the demise and flight of pre-war Germany’s great Jewish scientific community, with Bredig’s letters to his son Max, with which he enclosed volumes of his work and pleads with his son not to “toss them out”.
In fact Max managed to smuggle out not just his father’s work but many of his father’s colleagues, arranging employment at American universities. Other members of Bredig’s family were not so lucky.
Bredig himself fled Germany in 1939 with the assistance of a fellow Jewish chemist, Ernst Cohen, who was later killed at Aushwitz. Alfred Schnell, a chemist and colleague of Max, was executed by Dutch soldiers loyal to the Nazis.
They had been in hiding in the Netherlands for years, and their story is now well known, but the fact they were writing letters while in hiding was completely unknown until this collection surfaced.
“As long-time funders of Holocaust education, Dr Walder and I are proud to support the acquisition of the Bredig archive,” said Elizabeth Walder, president of the Walder Foundation. “We know that this collection will provide history and science scholars alike a unique vantage point for uncovering some of the untold stories of this tumultuous period in world history.”
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