Famous scholars from Kiel:
Born in Bramstedt in Schleswig-Holstein, Mestorf became the first female museum director in Germany in 1891 and only the second female professor in Germany at Kiel University in 1899. The prehistorian was head of the Schleswig-Holstein Museum of National Antiquities at the CAU.
The academic career of Johanna Mestorf was completely different from that of male academics of the time. She could not go to university and so had no chance of taking a degree, let alone a doctorate or qualifying as a lecturer. But in spite of this she managed to build an academic career through tireless self-study. Based on the prehistoric collection of her father, who had died early, she devoted herself to the history and antiquities of Schleswig-Holstein. She translated important treatises by Scandinavian archaeologists into German, wrote fundamental works herself, researched a stage of civilisation of the Neolithic Age and gave it the name "Einzelgrabkultur" (single grave culture).
Her participation in the great archaeological congresses in Copenhagen in 1869, Bologna in 1871 and Brussels in 1872 were unusual for the time and demonstrate the acceptance she enjoyed from other practitioners in the field. The prehistorian Eva-Maria Mertens from Karnin writes that "The foundations for research into the prehistory of Schleswig-Holstein were laid by Johanna Mestorf. Her main achievement was the establishment of an exhibition in the Museum of National Antiquities in the Kattenstrasse building in Kiel (...) The collection she brought together there today forms the core of the rich collections of the Archaeological Museum under the roof of Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen Schloss Gottorf foundation." Together with Dr Julia Koch Mertens organised a conference devoted to Johanna Mestorf in 1999. The conference proceedings have been published under the title "Eine Dame zwischen 500 Herren" (A lady among 500 gentlemen). Kiel University has named one of the streets on the campus after the second female professor in Prussia. Two institutions whose history is closely connected with that of the nineteenth-century scholar are based in the Johanna-Mestorf-Strasse: the Institute for Prehistory and Ancient History and the Department for European Ethnology. The Institute for Prehistory and Ancient History contains the Johanna Mestorf lecture theatre, which is adorned with her portrait.
According to the Church Register Johanna Mestorf was born in Bramstedt (Holstein) on 17 April 1828. However, throughout her life she celebrated 17 April 1829 as her birthday and the celebrations for her 70th, 75th and 80th birthdays were all based on the birth year of 1829. Her father, the surgeon Jacob Heinrich Mestorf, engaged in research into antiquities alongside his medical work and collected prehistoric artefacts. After his death in 1837 Johanna's mother moved to Itzehoe with her five children. In spite of the financial privations in which her family lived Johanna Mestorf received a thorough school education at the girls' secondary school run by the Blöker sisters in Itzehoe.
In 1849 she joined the household of Count Piper at Engsö castle in Sweden as a governess, where she deepened her knowledge of languages and history. This was an established profession for an educated unmarried girl from a good family but without private means. She spent five years in Sweden, learned Nordic languages and got to know the authors of well-known works on Scandinavian archaeology personally. After a brief return to her mother in 1853 she accompanied a relative of the Swedish family, Countess Faletti di Villa Falletto, to Italy for several years.
In 1859 she moved to her brother in Hamburg. There she began her first scientific and local historical studies and translated Scandinavian archaeological literature. In this way Mestorf disseminated the discoveries of what was then the progressive archaeological research of Scandinavia. From 1867 onwards Mestorf earned her living as a foreign languages secretary at the Lithographisches Institut C. Adler in Hamburg. From 1868 onwards she worked freelance for the Kiel Museum. When this museum became part of the Museum of National Antiquities and was incorporated in the CAU, she was appointed to the newly created post of custodian under the leadership of the museum director Heinrich Handelmann. "We cannot emphasise often enough that this museum was only established in 1873. Johanna Mestorf played a significant part in its foundation", says Dr Dagmar Unverhau from Berlin.
After Handelmann's death in 1891 the 63-year-old Mestorf succeeded him. This made her the first woman in Germany to head a museum and university institute. She was conferred with an honorary professorship by the Prussian Ministry of Culture in recognition of her academic work. This made her only the second woman in Germany, after a naturalist from the Baltic, to be appointed to a professorship. Johanna Mestorf was already 71 years old when she received this honour from the German imperial couple. However, she never taught at the university.
Mestorf stepped down from her position as director of the Kiel Museum on 1 April 1909. On her supposed 80th birthday, which was actually her 81st, she received the honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Medicine for her research into bog corpses. Johanna Mestorf died on 20 July 1909, just a few months after her retirement. She was buried in a family grave in Ohlsdorf cemetery in Hamburg.
Exceptional women at the university
Johann Mestorf's academic career unfolded in an age when women were not expected to participate in university life. In Prussia women were not able to register for a degree at a university until 1909. They were not formally granted the right to qualify as lecturers until 1919, ten years after Mestorf's death.
How difficult it was to be admitted to lectures even as a guest is related by Thomas Erdmann Fischer from Hamburg in the conference proceedings "Eine Dame zwischen 500 Herren": "At the beginning of the winter semester 1884/85 five ladies from the Kiel society applied to attend a lecture by Professor Krohn on Goethe's Faust at the university. The professor was asked for an opinion by the rectors and said that he felt half flattered and half disgusted. He turned down the application. (...) He was obviously very afraid of the idea of men and women sitting in the same lecture theatre. One of the ladies he turned down was Johanna Mestorf, who had then already been working at the university for twelve years".
The example of Johanna Mestorf and also of other exceptional women, such as the biologist Maria Merian (17th century), the mathematician Barbara Reinhardt and the medic Dorothea Erxleben (18th century) show that the academic world was not completely closed to women. But they were always exceptions and were unable to take part in conventional academic education.
Further Information: Exceptional women at the university