Hertha Sponer

Hertha Sponer portrait by Marianne Manasse
Hertha Sponer, oil portrait by Marianne Manasse ca 1948 (Property of Duke University)

Hertha Sponer was a very distinguished scientist and teacher, and the first woman on the Duke Physics faculty. She was born in 1895 in Neisse, formerly East Prussia, obtained her High School degree in Neisse and enrolled at the University of Göttingen after spending one year at the University of Tübingen. In 1920, she received a doctorate based on a theoretical physics thesis under the supervision of Peter Debye, and became an assistant of James Franck at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut in Berlin. She then returned with him to Göttingen in 1921. Together with Lise Meitner and Hedwig Kohn, she was one of the first women to obtain the PhD in Physics in Germany and the "Habilitation," the right to teach sciences at a German University.

By 1932 she had published some 20 scientific papers in prestigious Journals such as Zeitschrift für Physik, Nature and Physical Review, and became an Associate Professor of Physics. She was considered to be in the front ranks of women physicists, but when the Nazis came to power, she was dismissed from her position because of the strong prejudice against women scientists. Although she was not Jewish, she saw no future for herself in a German university and left to teach at the University of Oslo in Norway. The story on how she came to Duke in 1936 is told in detail in the book The Launching of Duke University 1924-1949 by Robert F. Durden, "An official of the Rockefeller Foundation, which sponsored a program to assist displaced German scholars, informed the Chair of the Duke Physics Department in late 1933 of her possible availability," and this was followed up by an appointment with partial financial assistance from the Foundation.

Sponer Group Photo
Group picture, taken in 1921 at at the Farewell of James Franck from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin – now called Fritz Haber Institute – leaving for his professorship at the University of Göttingen. From left to right: Hertha Sponer, Albert Einstein, Hugo Grotrian, Ingrid Franck (wife of James Franck), Wilhelm Westphal, James Franck, Otto von Bayer, Lise Meitner, Peter Pringsheim, Fritz Haber, Gustav Hertz, Otto Hahn)

President Few of Duke University had sought advice from Robert A. Millikan, a famous scientist at the California Technical Institute, on the problems facing the young and struggling Physics Department. Few received negative advice from Millikan on Sponer that showed a distinct prejudice against women scientists on a university faculty. Millikan’s letter arrived not long after the people at Duke had moved towards the decision to appoint her, and it is to their credit that they did not follow his advice. A complementary account on Sponer's appointment is contained in an essay by William E. King "Refugee Scholars at Duke University".

Hertha Sponer set up a spectroscopy laboratory in the Physics Department, which was transferred in 1949 to a new building. Her research occupied the subbasement, the quietest place with a steady temperature. The subbasement was specially equipped for her with pedestals on separate foundations for vibration-free mountings of the major optical component of her spectrometer. She published many articles, several of them in collaboration with theorists such as Edward Teller and Gertrud Nordheim, the wife of Lothar Nordheim another refugee from Germany who was appointed to the Duke Physics faculty in 1937. The list of her publications, as well as a tabulation of important dates in her life are compiled in the biography by M.-A. Maushart, recently translated into English, and is conveniently presented in "Early Ideas in the History of Quantum Chemistry".

Hertha Sponer in her Laboratory in Göttingen
Hertha Sponer in her Laboratory in Göttingen

One of her lasting contributions to the application of modern Quantum Mechanics to atomic and molecular physics were the two monographs: "Molekülspektren I and II", Springer Verlag 1935 and 1936.  Of these Vol I is a monograph – the first book written on molecular spectroscopy and Vol II is made up of tabulations. She continued her spectroscopic work on Near Ultraviolet Absorption Spectra in her Duke laboratory,where under her mentorship 12 graduate students obtained their Masters degree and 23 their PhD degree. One of the papers was co-authored with Hedwig Kohn already mentioned earlier, another refugee from Germany, who was a professor at Wellesley College. After her retirement in 1952, Hedwig Kohn, also an experimental spectroscopist, joined the Duke Physics Department and worked in the laboratory of Hertha Sponer where she mentored three graduate students and several postdoctoral associates.

As was stated in the biography by M.-A. Maushart which we quote, "Hertha Sponer's great merit has been in the experimental confirmation , by means of spectroscopy, of many quantum mechanical predictions. She also assembled in a comprehensive way the published spectroscopy research worldwide, and showed how the data fit into an overall picture. She is one of the pioneers in interdisciplinary research of the 20th century. Very early on, she grasped the significance of spectroscopic investigations in relation to problems in Chemistry. Already early in her academic career, she was interacting strongly with the Chemistry Department at the University of Göttingen". Later she published in the Journal of Chemical Physics, founded in 1932, and became its Associate Editor from 1940 until 1943 and again from 1947 until 1950. In her later years, her work was placed in the domain of Physical Chemistry, even though her experimental techniques and methods were those of a physicist. Hence her impact has been in the combination of molecular spectroscopy with chemistry applications. She acted as a liaison between these disciplines, because she was able to understand both the language of Physics and of Chemistry and to communicate in both of them. An article on Hertha Sponer has also been published by Helmut Rechenberg.

She had several distinguished visitors, like Per Olov Löwdin in 1951, and again in 1960, who worked with her. She was a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, of the American Physical Society and of other scientific organizations. In 2001 the German Physical Society established the Hertha Sponer Prize, awarded every year to a woman scientist at preferably an early stage in her career. In 2007, the Presidential Sponer Lectures were established at Duke University, where distinguished women scientists are the speakers.

Hertha Sponer and James Franck after their marriage in 1946

In 1946, Hertha Sponer and her former mentor, scientific correspondent and friend James Franck who had been widowed in 1941, were married. Being both professionally active, and with Franck a professor at the University of Chicago, they continued to live intheir respective cities, and therefore only saw each other for a few weeks every year, mostly during visits or common travels.

Hertha Sponer and James Franck in her office at Duke University

Franck died suddenly during a short stay in Goettingen in 1964 at the age of 81. One year after his death, Hertha Sponer reached the status of emeritus professor at the age of 70, and left Durham in 1966 to live in Celle, near Hannover in Germany with the family of her nephew. She died in a hospital in nearby Ilten in 1968.

Millikan’s letter is quoted in part in the Book by Durden and in its entirety in “Women Scientists in America” by Margaret Rossiter, John Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Helmut Rechenberg (Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics, edited by N. Byers and G.A. Williams, Cambridge U.P. 2006. p127) See also: http://books.google.com/books

The Biography of Hertha Sponer by M.A. Maushart: Hertha Sponer: A Women's Life as a Physicist in the 20th Century "So You Won't Forget Me".  You can order a bound copy from xLibris directly or download the eBook version using the link above.

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