Duke Physics to Publish Hertha Sponer Biography Online

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

At the April 18 Hertha Sponer Presidential lecture at Duke, Dean Nancy Allen announced that an English translation of a biography of Hertha Sponer will soon be available online. Hertha Sponer was a physics professor at Duke from 1936 until 1965. Originally from Germany, she fled to the U.S. before the start of the war. Prof. Horst Meyer, one of the organizers of the biography project, says, “Miss Sponer was not Jewish, but she was a woman. In those days, under the Nazis, women were not seen to be fit to have an academic position at a university, and she had to resign from her teaching and research position at the University of Göttingen.”

Some years ago, Marie-Ann Maushart wrote a biography of Sponer in German, which was published in 1998. Meyer found out about the biography from Brenda Winnewisser, who earned a PhD in physics at Duke in the mid-1960s. Although now at Ohio State, Winnewisser lived in Germany for about 30 years after marrying a German. Winnewisser and Meyer began working to have the biography translated into English, but they were stymied by a lack of interest among potential publishers. A few years later, in late 2006, Meyer brought up the issue with Prof. Dan Gauthier, Chair of the department, who suggested that the department could publish a translation online. Gauthier also allocated funds to pay for a translator. “It is thanks to the Chair that this project could get started again,” says Meyer. The translation is now complete and all that remains is some work on formatting and illustrations. Meyer says the biography will be online sometime before the end of year. “It’s not just a translation,” Meyer says. “It’s an update of the biography.” For example, Winnewisser wrote some new information about Hertha Sponer’s sister. Meyer says, “The sister of Hertha Sponer stayed in Germany and became a persona non grata to the Nazis because she supplied some refugees with food or shelter and was executed by the Nazis.” Meyer arrived at Duke in 1959, several years before Sponer retired. “I remember how keen she was with her lab work,” Meyer says. “She tended to be late to faculty meetings and be distracted but still she had several visitors—people who would come to work with her for one or two years. She also had a love of dogs.” When she retired, the Chair of the department, Henry Fairbank, arranged for her to be given a dog as a farewell gift. For more information about Hertha Sponer, click here.