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Marion Kazemi

"Personal Papers in the Archives for the History of the Max Planck Society"

The Archives for the History of the Max Planck Society were established in 1976 in the former Max Planck Institute for Cell Physiology in Berlin-Dahlem which had been closed after the death of its director, Nobel Laureate Otto Warburg, in 1970. The Archives keep unpublished and printed material as well as audio-visual documents which are important for the history of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of the Sciences. I cannot go into the history of the society in detail. However, I will try to give an idea for the better understanding of its structure.

Kaiser Wilhelm Society and Max Planck Society

In 1911 the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of the Sciences was founded at the instigation of Emperor Wilhelm II. by private means as a registered non-profit organization under private law. It was aimed at the support of science, in particular through the operation of research institutes. After its fortune had dwindled by the inflation, the society was basically financed by the German empire and by Prussia, some of its institutes predominantly by the industry. Besides that, however, it always had private means from membership fees and donations. After the Second World War the Allied Control Council decided that the Kaiser Wilhelm Society should be dissolved as a putative Nazi organization. As a result, in 1946, the Max Planck Society was founded as a rescue society for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in the English Zone and, a second time in 1948, in the Anglo-American Zone. According to its statutes the Max Planck Society carries on the tradition of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. Most of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes and their scientists as well as the societies’ fortune in the 3 Western Zones of Germany were transferred to the new society up to the year 1960. At that time the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was dissolved definitely.

Since 1949 about 95 % of the Max Planck Societies expenditure comes from public funds of the Federal Government and the states. The present budget (2005) is 1.33 billions €. This is the budget of two larger German universities or half of the budget of Harvard University. The remaining 5% comes from donations, members fees and funded projects.  These private means give the Max Planck Society a certain financial margin when the salary fixed by State salary regulations for a professor is not enough to attract the desired candidate.

The 78 research institutes, research units or working groups of the Max Planck Society perform basic research in the public interest in natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. In particular, the Max Planck Society takes up new and innovative research areas that German universities are not in a position to accommodate or deal with adequately. According to their research tasks the institutes belong to a Biology and Medicine Section, to a Chemistry, Physics and Technology Section or to a Human Sciences Section.

The elite of the scientists are the Scientific Members of the Max Planck Society. Their status corresponds approximately to that of a full professor. They are appointed by the senate of the Max Planck Society as a researcher without teaching obligation and are elected due to their outstanding scientific performance according to a multistage evaluation process - until now these jobs have not advertised. The Scientific Members are the directors of the institutes and heads of departments or divisions. A Scientific Member is completely free in his research, this means, that in the context of his institute he can do all kinds of research he is interested in or what seems to be promising to him. He may completely change his research subject if he likes.

Staff of the Max Planck Society (January 1, 2005)

Total of Employees 12,153 (Women 43,0 %) (Foreign nationals 13,0 %)

Scientists 4,113 (Women 22,3 %) (Foreign nationals 26,4 %)
Directors and Scientific Members 269  (Women 4,5 %) (Foreign nationals 26,4 %) 

Student assistants, Ph.D. students,post docs, and guest scientists 10,421 (women 51,9 %)

The Kaiser Wilhelm Society used to appoint excellent scientists first and only when this was successful, would it “build an institute around him, completely according to his ideas and needs". This was the so-called "Harnack principle" (named after the first president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society Adolf von Harnack). In a certain way the Harnack principle is still valid today. In my opinion this is a reason for the successful research within the society and for its reputation. So altogether 28 Scientific Members and 4 Presidents have been awarded a Nobel Prize and a further 20 Laureates were trained as scientific employees or post docs in Kaiser Wilhelm or Max Planck Institutes. Today the Max Planck Society has 269 active Scientific Members, 26 % of them come from abroad. There are further 150 emeritus members and 118 Honorary Members which is comparable to corresponding members of academies.

Acquisition Policy of the Archives

Our Archives take both, the files of the Administrative Headquarters and the bodies of the Society as well as those of the institutes, single departments, research units or working groups, when they are closed or have no more place for their non-current records. Besides that the Archives focus primarily on preserving the personal papers of outstanding personalities who were once active in the Kaiser Wilhelm or Max Planck Society. Primarily the 403 Scientific Members and directors who have passed away or left in few individual cases are part of them. Today I would like to speak about these personal papers .

Just after the start of work in 1976 the Archives took over non-current records from the Administrative Headquarters and from single Max Planck Institutes as well as the first personal papers from Scientific Members which at first were delivered up primarily by the institutes. The acquisition of personal papers was not followed up systematically at that time, but first of all the director cared about the papers of the Nobel Laureates who passed away recently. Besides he carried out a survey in all Max Planck Institutes to find out whether they had records and documents relevant for the Archives and in which he also asked for personal papers of former Scientific Members. In addition to the position of the director the Archives got a second one for a scientist in 1982 to take care for the acquisition of personal papers more specifically. - I was lucky to get this job.  In the following years I was first engaged in completing the existing lists of the deceased Scientific Members of the Kaiser Wilhelm / Max Planck Society to get a detailed survey of this group. In addition, I found out the whereabouts of their personal papers, institute by institute. When they were not already kept in other archives I tried to purchase them for our Archives. This was a kind of detective work.  However, it succeeded again and again even in seemingly hopeless cases, when I did not know the names and addresses of relatives or former colleagues. During the years I sometimes got intensive contact to the institutes or to old staff members who helped me along with addresses or arranged contact with the scientists’ families. By the way this network is more helpful than official circulars to the directors or administration heads offering us files not needed any more for current work.  Personal contacts are even more important and must be cultivated regularly.  Fortunately in most cases, it is without any problems to receive personal papers from the institutes or the families. Sometimes the families prefer the handing over of documents as a deposit instead of a gift. In this case they remain owners, however they put safeguarding and keeping to the responsibility of the Archives, sometimes the decision for use, too. It has happened only six times, that the Archives have purchased personal papers, four of them consisting of a small file or bundle which could be acquired at a reasonable price. One purchase could be realized only with the support of the Volkswagen Foundation. This was a collection of letters belonging to Otto Hahn that was lost during the war and that suddenly had appeared on the autograph market at the beginning of the eighties.

The ascertainment of personal papers has stepped back within the last 15 years. What I do now is ask the Scientific Members some months before their retirement to entrust their papers to the Archives or at least to bequeath them to us. This method requires tactfulness but is quite successful since it reassures many of them to know their papers in safe hands and their use being regulated until after their death, too. Furthermore we succeeded some years ago in adding a passage about the Archives’ interests within the so-called emeritus letter of the president which every director gets a good three years before his retirement. Since those leaving must clear their large rooms and offices in favour of their successors and change to smaller rooms, it is a good chance to give first parts of their papers into our Archives. On request I visit the emeritus in his institute and look at his papers together with him, discuss the handing over modalities and the accessibility of the documents. Other scientists compile their documents themselves according to my transmitted checklist. We then engage a forwarding agency with packing and collecting. By this procedure we got a third of the personal papers from living scientists.

For us a take-over in lifetime is the best way of take-over, especially when the scientist submits all his documents and leaves the decision to our Archives about what should be kept. The papers are restricted until 30 years after death, if nothing else has been agreed on in lifetime or with later owners - according to German Federal Archive Law -; living scientists decide themselves if they will give restricted access to their papers. We rarely conclude deposit contracts; we usually receive the collections for verbal or written assurance for personal access and provide the owners with more or less detailed take-over lists.

In most cases, the scientists of the Max Planck Society are glad to hand over their papers to our Archives. Many Scientific Members or their families regard it as an honour that we are interested in their collections. They like to know that they are preserved - so to speak - "for eternity in illustrious company of other scientists’ papers in the family vault of the Kaiser Wilhelm / Max Planck Society".

Personal Papers in the Archives for the History of the Max Planck Society

Today we keep 215 personal papers in our Archives with an amount of 1,700 linear metres compared with 1,500 metres of records. Among them we keep those of eleven Nobel Laureates. The papers of Max Planck and Fritz Haber didn't survive, but our Archives possess extensive collections of both including parts of their personal papers. In addition there are smaller autograph collections of Albert Einstein, Hans Spemann and Hans von Euler-Chelpin. I refer to the papers of the Nobel Laureates as these are usually extensive collections being of special interest. Don’t get me wrong! This does not mean that I would diminish the value of other papers. It shows that in general it is more often focused on the life of famous scientists, as Nobel Laureates are, rather than on that of other scientists. There is also a great interest in them by the media, especially by television. Take as an example this year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Einstein's death and the hundredth anniversary of his special theory of relativity.

Personal Papers in the Archives for the History of the Max Planck Society

Scientific Members 197

Biology and Medicine Section 104

Chemistry, Physics and Technology Section 68

Human Sciences Section 25

living scientists 58

Executive Board 5

Administrative Headquarters 4

Supporting Members 9

Total 215

Nearly half of the holdings (104) concerns the Biology and Medicine Section of the Kaiser Wilhelm-/ Max Planck Society, one third (68) concerns the Chemistry, Physics and Technology Section, while the remaining are from the smaller Human Sciences Section (25), from members of the Executive Committee (5), from members of the Administrative Headquarters (4) or from Supporting Members (9) who have supported the Kaiser Wilhelm/Max Planck Society financially and non-materially by means of their connections and advice.

My experience shows that scientists tend to pay less attention to their documents than scholars do because scientists mostly are convinced that their important research and results will be read in their publications. Perhaps their historical interest is far less developed than that of scholars - thank God, the exception proves the rule. So it happened before and happens until now that important documents get lost in the institutes, although we are trying hard to prevent this. Even the families of famous scientists use to pay more attention to preserve the papers, especially the widows who like to devote themselves to the "preservation of the historical monument" of their husbands, with the risk, however, that they clear up his papers.

Why do our Archives collect personal papers? In addition and as a private corrective of the records from the institutes our Archives attaches greatest importance to personal papers since they are not only more varied and more informative than the administrative records but also may allow us to reconstruct the genesis and the personal development of the decision making, the emergence of research topics and the methods used, failures and wanderings, but also the engagement in research politics and organizations. Sometimes the personal papers of scientists are of great importance for the history of the Max Planck Society as substitute documents for lost institute files. It occasionally happens in the Max Planck Institutes that the scientists keep the management files or even those of the administration within their papers, the other way round one can find personal papers as part of the institutes' records; the transitions are fluid. Since the Max Planck Society is a private organization in which both the institutes and the directors have an extraordinary independence, a regulation is not enforceable. Every handing over to the Archives - either institute records or personal collections - is more or less a question of good relationships. Nevertheless, it happens again and again that personal papers are not submitted completely but are "distributed" to several archives; this concerns primarily the papers of famous scientists in which according to their different fields of activity several archives are interested in. So the papers of Otto Hahn and Otto Warburg are distributed among two archives, those of Max von Laue even among three ones.

Size and contents of the personal collections vary strongly. The sizes range from small bundles to about 55 linear metres (Goldschmidt).  They include research material and data collections like measurements, laboratory books, investigation records, scientific photographs, manuscripts, lectures, reports, correspondences. We preserve the diploma, theses and postdoctoral theses, too, if they were done under their leadership as well as offprints of their own publications and exceptionally also of the publications of others - the latter is a problem of our stack's capacity. The papers may be completed by personal and biographical documents, photographs, films, tapes as well as by documents of the activities in scientific associations or as an editor, as well as such, which illustrate the political or social work, philosophical or religious interests, but also hobbies like music or art. Electronic data carriers with scientific data are delivered to an increasing degree which is a special problem in terms of preservation.


Nobel Laureate papers in the Archives for the History of the Max Planck Society

Nobel Laureate    Nobel Prize (D, M = Document, Medal in the MPS Archives) Description (lm = linear metres)

Carl Bosch (1874-1940) Chemistry 1931 D  private personal papers – 1,3 lm

Walther Bothe (1891-1957) Physics 1954 official personal papers – 4,3 lm

Adolf Butenandt (1903-1995) Chemistry 1939 D + M private + official personal papers – 44 lm

Peter Debye (1884-1966) Chemistry 1936 official personal papers - 3,0 lm

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) Physics 1921 collection - 0,15 lm

Hans von Euler-Chelpin (1873-1964) Chemistry 1929 collection - 0,05 lm

Fritz Haber (1968-1934) Chemistry 1918 D collection - 12,6 lm

Otto Hahn (1979-1968) Chemistry 1944 official personal papers – 36 lm

Georges Köhler(1946-1995) Medicine 1984 official personal papers – 14 lm

Richard Kuhn (1900-1967) Chemistry 1938 D + M private personal papers – 6,75 lm

Max v. Laue (1879-1960) Physics 1914  D private + official personal papers – 7 lm

Feodor Lynen (1911-1979) Medicine 1964 private + official personal papers – 18,3 lm

Max Planck (1858-1947) Physics 1918 collection - 7,3 lm

Ernst Ruska (1906-1988) Physics 1986 personal papers - 12,75 lm

Hans Spemann (1869-1941) Medicine 1935 collection - 0,05 lm

Otto Heinrich Warburg (1883-1970) Medicine 1931 D private personal papers + collec­tion Sir Hans Krebs – 2,3 lm