Humanity, Humility and Humour:
Dr. Gerhard Herzberg’s Pursuit of Scientific Study & Progress
By: Denisa Popa
This article was originally published on the Defining Moments Canada website.
On January 17th, 1985, Dr. Gerhard Herzberg attended a dinner in his honour after receiving the Great Cross of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany. At this event, he looked back over on his scientific career and personal life journey, highlighting the various people, places and values that had influenced his life over many decades. In 1935, Gerhard Herzberg and his wife Luise had left Nazi Germany and found safety at the University of Saskatchewan. Herzberg would later join Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), where his ground-breaking discoveries in spectroscopy earned him a Nobel Prize. While accepting the Great Cross of Merit, Herzberg reflected on his incredible scientific journey and highlighted the three attributes he valued most as a scientist: humanity, humility and humour. 
From an early age, Herzberg developed and maintained a keen interest in chemistry and physics. He saw his Nobel Prize as acknowledging “a long series of studies extending practically over my whole scientific life.” While Herzberg’s successful scientific career and Nobel Prize win grew in part from the ample resources and scientific freedom afforded to him in his later career at the NRC, it would be misleading to simply equate his professional success with institutional support. His personal and scientific journey not only embodied those “three h’s” but was one that he did not travel alone. Indeed, while Herzberg encountered obstacles throughout his life, he overcame them with the support of numerous individuals within his professional and social networks. His extensive support system, his scientific brilliance and keen intellect allowed him to overcome hardships to gain international acclaim for his work.
Early Interest in Knowledge, Education and Science
Born in 1904, Gerhard Herzberg grew up in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1910s and 1920s, and attended the Realgymnasium des Johanneums. This school, known as a Gymnasium, offered a curriculum mostly focused on science and mathematics. His school experience triggered an early curiosity about the sciences. One teacher in particular made a lasting impression. According to his biography, Professor Wilhelm Hillersat inspired Herzberg’s fascination with atomic physics and spectra. He was so intrigued by these new topics, in fact, that he attended Hillersat’s lectures on modern physics held before the start of the school day.
“Gerhard Herzberg with immediate family, age 7 years, Germany 1912” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.
During his time at the Gymnasium, Herzberg also became interested in the arts, and studied Latin, French, Spanish, and English, as well as literature and poetry, including Goethe, Kant, and others. He also played the violin. Following graduation, he enrolled in the Technical University in Darmstadt (Technische Hochschule), becoming the first in his family to attend a post-secondary educational institution.
Financial Pressures: Attending University
Attending university brought significant financial pressures. In order to study and then begin a scientific career, Herzberg needed to seek outside funding as, according to his biography, “his family had no funds of any kind.” Prior to enrolling, Herzberg had considered astronomy, but was informed that he should not choose this field unless he could support himself financially. He briefly considered enrolling part-time and finding a job in order to afford tuition and living expenses. But this arrangement was not what Herzberg had envisioned for himself. He wanted to devote his full time to his studies and research. In a final attempt to secure funding, and on the advice of his friend Alfred Schulz’s father, Herzberg wrote to Hugo Stinnes, a German businessman, and requested a private scholarship. Stinnes agreed, offering Herzberg a scholarship of 90 Rentenmarks (RM) each month to support his studies, and on April 26th, 1924 he was able to enroll at the Technical University in Darmstadt.
Political Barriers: Nazi Germany
On December 30th, 1929 Gerhard Herzberg married Luise Hedwig Oettinger. He had first met Luise while completing his postdoctoral fellowship at University of Göttingen, where she was also a student involved in spectroscopy research. Luise, a physicist, became Herzberg’s partner. After they married, the couple returned to the Technical University in Darmstadt, where Herzberg was employed as a “Privatdozent,” a position which “allowed him to lecture without pay, earn a small salary in return for managing undergraduate research labs, and carry out his own research.” For several years, the couple thrived at the university, with both engaged in scientific research. However, their lives changed drastically when the Nazi regime enacted anti-Semitic laws.
On April 27th, 1934 Herzberg learned he was required to submit several documents to the university if he wanted to remain employed: Luise’s birth certificate, her parents’ marriage certificate and their own marriage certificate. While Herzberg was not Jewish, his wife Luise was. As a result, the university cancelled Herzberg’s seminars and he was “deemed unfit to teach German youth.” Unsure about his career and concerned for the safety of his family, Herzberg decided to leave the country and seek employment elsewhere. Gerhard and Luise left Germany just months before the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws. While Herzberg was eventually successful in finding a Guest Professorship at the University of Saskatchewan, he encountered great difficulty finding a position at any academic institution during a time when so many scholars were leaving Germany. It was largely due to his scientific network and close friendship with Dr. John Spinks (from the University of Saskatchewan) that Gerhard and Luise were able to continue his scientific work in Canada.
Continued Financial Barriers: University of Saskatchewan
Herzberg’s endeavour to attend university in Darmstadt would not be the only instance in which he had to worry about financial barriers impacting his pursuit of scientific study. When Herzberg arrived in Saskatoon in 1935, Saskatchewan’s economy (and the university), were still feeling the effects of the Great Depression and a drought that had heavily impacted the agricultural sector in Western Canada. In fact, Herzberg’s position at the university was funded by an outside grant from the Carnegie Corporation that sponsored “displaced German scholars” with two-year fellowships “in universities of the British Dominions and Colonies.”.
Herzberg and his wife left Germany with just $2.50 in hand, the maximum the Nazi government allowed them to take out of the country. When he arrived in Saskatoon, he encountered more financial constraints, this time from the university. As Boris Stoicheff explains in his biography of Herzberg, “[t]he university lacked suitable equipment for spectroscopic research, and funds to purchase equipment and make additional appointments to the staff were almost non-existent”. These constraints were eventually resolved as he was later given $1,800 to buy new laboratory equipment. It took Herzberg four years to finish assembling his spectroscopy lab, which was described as “the best instrument in Canada.”.
Foundations of Support: Scientific Network
When Herzberg first began searching for a new academic post outside of Germany, he reached out to several sources in his scientific network. As his son Paul recalls, “Gerhard, and a number of organizations and colleagues working on his behalf, searched the world for a suitable academic post.” During the early days of his search, he contacted Dr. James Franck, a former colleague from the University of Göttingen, who advised him to apply to both “the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars in New York and to the Academic Assistance Council in London.” Unfortunately, neither association connected Herzberg with a new academic post he could accept. He’d begun his search too late, and many of the open positions had already been filled. However, while Herzberg was inquiring about academic opportunities, Dr. John Spinks had been petitioning on his behalf in Canada.
They met in 1933 when Spinks spent a year working with Herzberg in his lab in Darmstadt. Spinks was a chemist from the University of Saskatchewan who took a temporary leave due to budget restrictions. When Spinks heard from Herzberg regarding his predicament, he first inquired about a position at the University of Toronto, which had a distinguished spectroscopy laboratory. Yet U of T had nothing available nor could Spinks find openings at any of Canada’s major research centres. When Spinks learned that displaced German scholars were eligible for a two-year fellowship from the Carnegie Corporation, he reached out to Dr. Walter Murray, the President of the University of Saskatchewan and recommended Herzberg for a position supported by the grant. Based on Spinks’ “high recommendation of Herzberg,” Murray offered Herzberg a temporary position in the Department of Physics. While his appointment was only supposed to last for two years, Herzberg remained there for ten years until 1945.
“Gerhard Herzberg and J. W. T. Spinks in front of the Chemistry Building, University of Saskatchewan, c. 1975” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.
Throughout his career, he often mentioned the importance of the opportunities he was given at the University of Saskatchewan and their role in his scientific pursuits. As he said when accepting his Nobel Prize, “It is obvious that the work that has earned me the Nobel Prize was not done without a great deal of help. First of all, while at the University of Saskatchewan I had the full and understanding support of successive Presidents and of the Faculty of the University who, under very stringent conditions, did their utmost to make it possible for me to proceed with my scientific work.”
Foundations of Support: Dr. Luise Herzberg
Perhaps no one supported Gerhard Herzberg and his pursuit of science as much as his wife Luise, herself a remarkably gifted physicist and astronomer with her own scientific career. She co-authored several papers with him, working alongside him on various projects, and eventually took on most of the household and parental responsibilities that came with raising their two children, Paul and Agnes. Luise passed away in June, 1971, only a few months before Herzberg was awarded the Nobel Prize. As Paul Herzberg notes in his mother’s biography, “I was certain that, without her love and support, Gerhard would not have won the prize. I felt strong pangs of regret that she did not live to see the culmination of their lives together.”
Luise was born in 1906 in Nuremberg, Germany, and like her husband she also became interested in science from an early age. She studied mathematics, science, and multiple foreign languages while in high school. In 1926, Luise attended the Technische Hochschule in Munich for a degree in mechanical engineering. She went on to study physics at the University of Göttingen and engineering physics at the Technical University in Darmstadt. In 1933, Luise received her PhD in Physics from the University of Frankfurt. Her dissertation focused on the “spectrum and structure of BeO.” Luise finished her doctorate just prior to the enactment of antisemitic restrictions and “was most likely the last woman, and one of the last Jewish people, to receive the Doctorate degree in Nazi Germany,” according to Herzberg’s biographer.
Throughout her marriage, Luise frequently collaborated with Herzberg on scientific projects, but she also published her own work separately. The spectroscopy research she had conducted on BeO was published in Nature in 1932. Over the next five years, Luise co-authored three additional papers with two other scientists, and a fourth by herself. Her most well-known papers, published in 1947 and 1948, were written in collaboration with her husband and Dr. Harold D. Babcock, an American astronomer. One of her most prominent and vital contributions to Herzberg’s work was helping him prepare “several hundred illustrations and numerous tables” for his well-known “monograph on molecular spectra.”
After they moved to Saskatoon, Luise reduced the number of hours she spent on her own research and devoted more time to her children and the household. She was “often sighted on campus during good weather, wheeling the baby carriage, then the stroller, as the family visited Gerhard and brought him lunch.” She became an active member of the university’s Physics Club and is mentioned in the 1938 “Report on physics at the University of Saskatchewan.” As Paul and Agnes grew older, Luise returned to her own scientific research, and became even more prominent after the family moved to Ottawa in 1948.
“Gerhard Herzberg and Luise Herzberg on tour c.1967” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.
Paul Herzberg’s biography of his mother offers the most personal look into her life and the tensions between her own scientific aspirations and desire to support her family and husband. Reflecting on Luise’s scientific achievements, some colleagues claimed that “given the opportunity, Luise might have exceeded Gerhard’s accomplishments and maybe also have won a Nobel Prize.”
When Gerhard Herzberg passed away in 1999, his family, close acquaintances and colleagues hosted a memorial tribute in his memory. As they celebrated his life, many reflected on the ways in which his life embodied one of the “three h’s”. Israel Helperin (University of Toronto), and Secretary of the Campaign for Human Rights (through written word) reflected on Herzberg’s humanity towards others.
Gerhard Herzberg should be remembered as a great scientist. But he should also be remembered as an outstanding participant in the struggle against inhumanity. When asked to support some humanitarian action, his response was quick and generous, with his characteristic reply “I’m all for it”.
Herzberg’s former colleague, a member of his Spectroscopy group, Dr. D.A. Ramsay spoke to his sense of humour stating that “Dr. Herzberg had a wonderful sense of humour and enjoyed a joke, even if occasionally it was on him.” His daughter, Dr. Agnes Herzberg, an internationally renowned statistician, later clarified that he “usually forgot the punch line of any joke he tried to tell.”
Throughout his career, Gerhard Herzberg faced numerous personal, political and financial barriers and his Nobel Prize win resulted from a combination of multiple factors: from his intellect and lifelong dedication to science to the various systems of support he had. It is clear that there is more to Herzberg’s story and that his journey was indeed one of Humanity, Humility and Humour. The next post in this series will continue to explore Dr. Gerhard Herzberg’s life after his arrival in Saskatoon, focusing in particular on the important role that Canada as a country played in fostering his scientific work.
Introducing Gerhard Herzberg – Denisa Popa
Dr John T. W. Spinks, 1908 – 1997 – University of Saskatchewan
“A Memorial Tribute to Gerhard Herzberg” 11 May 1999: 1-49.
“About the Scientist: Gerhard Herzberg,” Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, last modified July 23, 2020, https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Prizes-Prix/Herzberg-Herzberg/Scientist-Scientifique_eng.asp
A.M. Herzberg, “G.H., My Father: His Legacy,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies , 2019), 3-5.
Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science (Ottawa: Canadian Science Publishing, 2002).
Gerhard Herzberg, “Humanity, Humility and Humour: Speech at the German Embassy After Having Been Awarded the Great Cross of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany, 17 January 1985,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies, 2019), 83-85.
Gerhard Herzberg – Nobel Lecture. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Thu. 26 Aug 2021. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1971/herzberg/lecture/>
Paul Herzberg, Luise Herzberg: Astrophysicist (Toronto: York University Printing Services, 2010).
 Gerhard Herzberg, “Humanity, Humility and Humour: Speech at the German Embassy After Having Been Awarded the Great Cross of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany, 17 January 1985,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies, 2019), 83.
 Ibid., 84.
 Gerhard Herzberg – Nobel Lecture. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Thu. 26 Aug 2021. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1971/herzberg/lecture/>
 Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science (Ottawa: Canadian Science Publishing, 2002), 191-195.
 Herzberg, “Humanity, Humility and Humour,” 84.
 Stoicheff, An Illustrious Life, 11.
 Ibid., 14.
 “About the Scientist: Gerhard Herzberg,” Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, last modified July 23, 2020, https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Prizes-Prix/Herzberg-Herzberg/Scientist-Scientifique_eng.asp
 Stoicheff, An Illustrious Life, 88.
 Ibid., 88.
 Ibid., 101.
 Ibid., 122.
 Ibid., 132.
 Paul Herzberg, Luise Herzberg: Astrophysicist (Toronto: York University Printing Services, 2010), 25.
 Stoicheff, An Illustrious Life, 94.
 Ibid., 104.
 A.M. Herzberg, “G.H., My Father: His Legacy,” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies , 2019), 3-4.
 P. Herzberg, Luise Herzberg: Astrophysicist, 155.
 Ibid., 163.
 Stoicheff, An Illustrious Life, 85.
 P. Herzberg, Luise Herzberg: Astrophysicist, 64.
 Stoicheff, An Illustrious Life, 126-127.
 Stoicheff, An Illustrious Life, 122; P. Herzberg, Luise Herzberg: Astrophysicist, 63.
 P. Herzberg, Luise Herzberg: Astrophysicist.
 Ibid., 158.