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David Cahan The “Imperial Chancellor of the Sciences”: Helmholtz between Science and Politics INTRODUCTION By the last third of the nineteenth centuiy, German universities were widely perceived as the w orld’s leading institutions of higher learning, as sites where science and scholarship of the highest level flourished.* It had not always been so. From their emergence during the fourteenth century down through the Enlightenm ent, German universities had largely been devoted to teaching and so were w ithout distinction in research. Following a m ovem ent in the m id-eighteenth century to enhance research at select institutions, they suffered severe disrup­ tion during the Napoleonic wars. As a consequence, in the early nine­ teenth centuiy the German states reconstituted their universities: they variously endowed them w ith new legal standing, consolidated them where necessary (Breslau, Halle, and Munich), founded two im portant new ones (Berlin and Bonn), raised the qualifications for those who hoped to study and teach in them , and built new or renovated older facilities. Further, led by Prussia, the provincial state cultural ministries, under whose aegis the universities fell, gradually fostered a research im perative in their institutions, changing their ethos from one domi­ nated by teaching needs and local personalities to th at of a com peti­ tive, German-wide system w herein research publication and scientific social research Vol 73 : No 4 : W inter 2006 1093 distinction became the prim e hallm arks of performance, and thus of hiring and prom otion. Especially after 1865, as m any new institutes and laboratories opened and as the size of the German student bodies and teaching staffs increased noticeably, German research came to set the pace in m any disciplines of the natural and social sciences as well as in the hum anities. German universities m aintained preem inence in science and scholarship until about 1914; after the w ar the gradual rise of American (and other) university systems, the financial difficulties of the W eimar Republic, and the political ideology of National Socialism eroded Germany’s leadership. It was during the nineteenth century, then, that the German states (Länder), their universities, and their scien­ tists and scholars learned to compete and cooperate fruitfully w ith one another, to set new norm s of perform ance and new understandings of perm itted conduct that enabled the system as a whole to succeed (Turner, 1971; McClelland, 1980). Herm ann von Helmholtz was both a beneficiaiy of and contrib­ utor to the expansive institutional changes that occurred w ithin the German university system and the new standards and enhanced spirit of research. He was born in 1821 in Potsdam, the son of a disgruntled gymnasium teacher, who could not provide the financial means for his extraordinarily talented son to attend a university and become a physi­ cist. This led father and son to decide that Helmholtz should instead becom e a m edical doctor—at Prussia’s expense—and this in tu rn brought Helmholtz into early and direct contact w ith the state. In 1838, Helmholtz began four years of training at the Prussian army medical institute (M edizinisch-chirurgisches Friedrich-W ilhelms-Institut) in Berlin. This was followed by a year’s hospital internship at the Charité in Berlin, and then three m ore years as an army physician w ith regi­ m ental units in Potsdam. Helmholtz came to know the Prussian arm y’s sense of order, discipline, and duty firsthand. Nearly a decade’s w orth of m ilitary experience and service (1838-1848) helped bind him to the state and its ethos (Cahan, ed., 1993c). During the subsequent half-century, until his death in 1894, Helm holtz becam e one of Germ any’s m ost successful scientists. He achieved renown above all as a physiologist and physicist, often using 1094 social research physical and m athem atical m ethods and instrum ents to attack seem­ ingly intractable physiological problems. He became especially known for his work in nerve physiology and physiological heat, for his inven­ tion of the ophthalm oscope, for color theory, for physiological optics and acoustics, and, on the physics side, for thermodynamics (his discov­ ery of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1093-1128
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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