Edith and Alice Hamilton: Students in Germany

A pioneer in industrial medicine and the first woman to teach at the Harvard Medical School, DR. ALICE H A MILTON,following her graduation from the University of Michigan, went abroad with her older sister, Edith, the classicist, to do graduate work in Germany. Here is the welcome they received.

IT WAS almost seventy years ago that my sister Edith and I set sail for Europe for a year of study in Germany. We were in our early twenties, Edith the winner of a European fellowship at Bryn Mawr, I having secured my M.D. at the medical school at Ann Arbor. We had adequate German, which we had learned in early childhood from the servant girls, who were always German, and then from teachers in the Lutheran parochial schools.

The Germany we found was so different from that which I saw in later years (I visited Germany eight times) that now, as I look back on it, I can hardly believe it was the same country. At the top were the Kaiser and the army, universally revered; at the bottom were the women, relegated to church, kitchen, nursery.” It did not seem a good country for American women students to choose, but my Ann Arbor teachers had assured me that if I planned to specialize in bacteriology and pathology, I must go to Germany for training or nobody would accept me as an expert. Edith’s Bryn Mawr held the same view of Germany as the center for classical studies.

We had a long correspondence with German universities, trying to find one that would take us both. It was up to the individual department of the university to decide; evidently there was no policy set for the university as a whole. Indeed, I found that the German professor had more independent authority than the American. The faculty elected the president, and the head of each department decided whether to allow coeducation. So while Edith found that she could hear lectures at the University of Berlin, I was refused, and we found favorable treatment for both of us at the University of Leipzig, which did not tempt us at all.

Leipzig’s winter is gloomy: we hardly ever glimpsed the sun; there was never snow, only a dreary rain, and therefore no possibility of country trips. We lived in a nice pension kept by a widow, a Frau Rittmeister, and her daughter, Fräulein Eva. She was an attractive girl, intelligent, with pleasant manners; but we were told by her mother’s friends that she could not hope to marry, for she had no dowry. While her father lived he had saved up for it, but her only brother was an officer in the army, stationed in Berlin, and as was true of most young officers, he got into money scrapes. One of Gerhart Hauptmann’s plays. Die Ehre, shows that this meant suicide unless the debts could be paid. His mother, who adored him, used Eva’s dowry to extricate him, and so Eva had nothing to look forward to but helping her mother run a pension.

Edith was deeply disappointed in her Greek and Latin courses. The lecturers were very thorough linguistically but most uninspiring. Instead of the grandeur and beauty of Aeschylus and Sophocles, it seemed that the important thing was their use of the second aorist. At least that is how I remember it, though I have forgotten what the second aorist is.

My experience was better so far as the study of pathology went. My Ann Arbor teachers had specially recommended Leipzig because the course in gross pathology — autopsies — was excellent. But I found at once that no woman could attend an autopsy. The mere thought was shocking; so I studied microscope specimens and went to lectures. The atmosphere in the Leipzig laboratory was not hostile but very distant. I was shown how to prepare specimens, but that was all; no instruction, no comments. A timid plea for help would be met by “Do not interrupt me now, Fraulein Doktor; you will ruin my whole day.” Fräulein Doktor was the title of a musical comedy then playing in Germany. “Frau Doktor,” of course, would have meant “wife of a doctor.”

The laboratory was full of Privat Dozenten and assistants. But usually once in the morning Professor Birch-Hirschfeld (Real Geheimrat with the tide Exzellenz) would enter, and all of us would stand up and bow as he passed through with a few words to us.

A break would come in the morning’s routine, Morgen Schoppen. A Diener would appear with rye bread and butter, sliced sausages, and beer. Work would be dropped, and all would be hilarity. Sometimes one of the men would play a tune on a comb and the rest would dance to it. In the afternoon would come a similar pause, Dämmer Schoppen. Yet these men were producing first-class scientific work.

When I applied for permission to attend lectures I was told, after some deliberation, that that would depend on the individual lecturer. He might decide that I would be “invisible,” although my tuition fee would be accepted. Several of the lecturers lived up to that rule, opening the lecture with the word “Gentlemen” while gazing at me. But the one I respected most, who had already made a name in the United States, made his own rule by substituting “Honored Attendants,” which was quite sexless.

Leipzig did give us music, wonderful concerts every week, and that made up for a good deal. All the same, we were glad to try a change when the semester was over and we could go on to Munich, where I had been accepted and it looked as if Edith would be.

We spent the long vacation in Frankfurt am Main, where I worked in Edinger’s laboratory. He asked me to do a little Arbeit for him on the olfactory system of bony fish. He was kind and apparently quite free of prejudice against women students, but when I asked him if his charming little daughter Dora would go into the laboratory when she grew up, he was horrified, “Oh, God forbid,” he exclaimed.

MUNICH was a delightful change of climate, not only outdoors but in the laboratory. Everyone, from Professor Buchner to the Diener and all the research students, was friendly, gay, and curious, and really welcomed the extraordinary coming of an American and a woman. Of course, I could not for a moment forget I was a woman. The question would come, even from friendly lips, “If American women go into science, who will darn the stockings?” And it did interfere with my work. Dr. Buchner was then studying the part played by the white corpuscles of the blood in cases of infection, and I hoped to be in on that, but he explained to me kindly that it involved animal experiments, and of course a woman could not take part in them. So I did purely routine work in bacteriology such as I had had in Ann Arbor under Dr. Novy. Lectures were out of the question.

My being an American was almost as interesting to the men in the laboratory as my being a woman. They were full of questions about the United States. Kolossal, they would call it. They were ready to believe anything about it. Indeed, they already believed preposterous things. One old doctor (who was engaged in research on the “bacillus of stinking foot sweat”) told about a wonderful trip his brother had made in the United States to the Far West. “It was just nightfall when they reached the great Mississippi River, and when they woke up the next morning they were still crossing it.” They all agreed it was Kolossal.

I did very much wish to hear Buchner give a lecture to a group of graduate physicians about his work on immunity, and I begged him to let me creep in at the back of the hall. I would keep very quiet and creep out before the audience stood up to go. He hated to refuse me, but it was a most ruledefying request. Finally he did arrange it. I must be in the laboratory ten minutes before the lecture; the oldest research student, a grandfather he was, would escort me to the lecture room and seat me in a corner. Then when the lecture was over and the audience had not yet risen from their seats, Buchner himself would hurry to escort me out. I gazed at that group of middle-aged men, all practicing doctors or research scholars, and wondered whether they were a danger to me or I was a danger to them.

We always sensed the thinly veiled contempt of most of the students, many of the teachers. To be an American was, of course, to be uneducated, and if a woman, incapable of really acquiring education. Students would often stride along the streets four abreast with arms locked. If we met them, it was for us to step into the gutter, or we would be pushed there. I had a really comical proof of my inferiority when compared to a man. This was in Frankfurt am Main, where we had a chance to attend opera and theater, always for us in the cheap top balcony. Being light and quick I could run up the stairs and often get a good seat. One evening I had secured one in the front row, and then a tall, blond Siegfried of a German leaned over, placed his hands under my arms, lifted me out to the passage, and sat down. It was so funny that I burst out laughing, but he never noticed. A woman had a seat he wanted, so he took it.

WORK in Munich was easier for me than for Edith, who met with formidable difficulties. Her admission to the university was a cause of such excitement among the students that a kind elderly professor offered to see her through it on her first day. She assured him it would not be necessary, but was indeed grateful to him when she found the University Place crowded with students waiting to see the first woman go in. Six German women had applied that year, and one English woman, a student of archaeology. She was admitted, but the Germans were refused. We were told that the only reason women wanted a university education was to make trouble for the government. If foreign governments did not object, that was all right, but Germany had more sense. We wondered about Switzerland, which then was full of Russian refugees, many of them women and some, surely, nihilists.

The reason why Edith had such difficulties was that Munich University, being in Bavaria, was Roman Catholic and numbered many candidates for the priesthood among its students. If a woman were admitted to lectures in the classical department, it would mean that a seminarian might have to sit next to her, even share a manuscript with her if there were not enough to go around. It was shocking even to think of it. But luckily for Edith there was enough antagonism between Protestant and Catholic faculty members to make the former take up her cause. All sorts of arrangements were suggested. I remember especially an ingenious one, that a little loge, a theater box, be built for her with curtains so that the seminarians could not even see her. Finally it came to a chair up on the lecturer’s platform, where nobody could be contaminated by contact with her. It was hard on Edith, who had never attended a coeducational school even at home, only Farmington and Bryn Mawr.

Edith found the Munich professors of the classics more interesting than those in Leipzig, and really enjoyed some of them. One, Professor von Christ, treated her as he did the men students, even as if he liked having her there. He was the head of a family consisting of nine daughters. Of course, they were known as the Nine Christian Muses and were the object of wondering pity in university circles. We were told that it was impossible to provide dowries for more than three of them, so that left six to a life of spinsterhood at home, since it was unheard of for a professor’s daughters to seek any kind of outside work. Evidently one of the six grew desperate and took the tragic alternative of elopement with a lieutenant, cutting herself off from her family and all her friends. “But cannot her parents make the man marry her?” we asked, only to be told that such a marriage was forbidden by the Emperor. No army officer might marry a girl who had not a dowry sufficient to maintain the standard of living required of an officer. We always felt the presence and the overwhelming importance of the German army.

The men of learning were much honored, the place of their families in society assured, but we felt that the army was really above all. It was taken for granted that an officer should follow rules other than those of nonmilitary men (common men). Often we saw one of them in uniform walking along followed by his wife with her arms full of parcels. We were told it was against regulations for an officer to be seen in public carrying anything. An officer’s wife told me how much she had enjoyed her trip to Paris, and how nice it was to be able to go to the opera and the theater in the cheap seats. Of course, in Germany that was impossible: no officer’s wife must ever be seen in the balcony.

Munich was a delightful contrast to Leipzig. It was late spring and early summer, lovely weather, and we took full advantage of it. Munich is a Roman Catholic city, so that in June there were no less than thirteen holidays, and Protestants took advantage of them as well as did Catholics. Often we took a trip to the country regions, which were easily reached by train in those days before automobiles. We would use the fourth-class cars, so cheap, and filled with pleasant sociable peasants, who were delighted to find that we were Americans. We would lunch in a beer garden, at a table with a lovely view, on big sandwiches and coffee or the dark Franziskaner beer which was the only kind we liked. Then a group of students would begin to sing as only German students can, and we would have an outdoor concert with no tickets needed. We went to Neuschwanstein, the mad King’s castle, which he built while obsessed with Wagner and the Nibelungenlied.

But it was not long before a change began in German universities — as early as 1899, when our younger sister, Margaret, who was also a holder of a Bryn Mawr European fellowship, went to Munich to study embryology. She was assigned a separate room where she was to work alone, not because the men resented her presence, but because they were freshmen, and they had been so strictly dominated in high school that the new liberty went to their heads, and instead of working they loafed.

When German universities finally opened their doors to women, they went the whole way. No distinction was made between the sexes; there were no dormitories for women, no dean of women, no rules about coming back at night.

When I went back in 1912, I talked about the change with Frau Professor Edinger, whose husband had died. She told me that her younger daughter had gone to the University of Munich and was living with another girl student in a furnished room which they rented. She said she had a letter from Tilly telling her that during the carnival the two had wandered all night in the streets with the men. “It sounds shocking, but really it is quite harmless.” I recalled Professor Edinger’s horror at the thought of little Dora growing up to be a scientist.

But the emancipation of women has not proceeded steadily in Germany as it has in most other countries; it has been interrupted, sometimes by severe setbacks. I witnessed one such when, in 1933, Hitler had just come into power and the whole country seemed caught up in a mad enthusiasm. I was in Königsberg, a city of East Prussia, on the night of the great Burning of the Books. I went out into the square to watch crowds of youngsters, boys and girls, joyously flinging books into a big bonfire. They told me these were condemned books, Communist, subversive, unpatriotic, full of degenerate sex stuff, books that ridiculed all that true Germans revered.

I joined a group of these students when we went back to the hotel and talked with an attractive girl who had taken part in the burning. “Oh, it was wonderful,” she said. “It was purifying, liberating the true German spirit and casting off so-called intellectualism.”

I asked if she was a student.

“Yes, I am studying architecture.”

“But,” I said, “we hear that the professions, even the universities, are to be closed to women and all girls are to be sent back to domestic life.”

She answered proudly, “If the Fatherland asks that sacrifice of me, I am ready.” Evidently the Fatherland did ask it; though fairly soon it was the factories that pulled the women away from domestic life, the men having gone to war.

My last visit to Germany was in the fall of 1938, at the time of the famous Munich Conference, which started World War II. I had gone as a representative of the Department of Labor to a meeting of the International Congress of Industrial Physicians. Always before at these meetings I would find myself one of a small group of women members, chiefly German and Austrian, but this time I found myself the only woman and far from welcome. In the past I had been embarrassed by special attention, by being made conspicuous; this time I had just the opposite treatment — I was ignored. I remember feeling quite grateful when a kindly Egyptian doctor motioned me to a seat beside him at a formal luncheon.

Now, of course, great changes have come again in the lot of German women. A striking instance is the career of the younger daughter of my old friends Dr. and Mrs. Edinger. When I was in Germany during Hitler’s reign, Tilly Edinger, already an authority in her special field of paleontology, was still working in the Institute in Frankfurt am Main but was advised to put on an apron when she ventured into the hall so that she could pass as a servant. When she went back from her American exile, at Harvard, in the fifties, she was welcomed enthusiastically by her men colleagues and was invited by several universities to come and survey their paleontology specimens. Now she has just been elected head of the international association. A dramatic swing-over, surely. We who love Germany can only hope the reformation will last.