Kiel University
You are here: HomeKiel UniversityHistory of the universityFamous Scholars from Kiel

print view  |  zur deutschen Fassung

Famous scholars from Kiel:

Philipp Eduard Anton Lenard

This experimental physicist and Nobel prize laureate is considered to be one of the most ambivalent scientists in the history of Kiel University. On the one hand he was a first-class research scientist but on the other hand an embittered egocentric and passionate National Socialist.

Philipp Eduard Anton Lenard was born in 1862 in what was then called Pressburg (now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia) and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was the son of a wine merchant. After studying natural sciences in Budapest and Vienna as well as physics in Berlin and Heidelberg, Lenard was awarded a doctorate in 1886 at Heidelberg. In 1891 he moved to Bonn as an assistant to Heinrich Hertz and was awarded his "Habilitation" there. In Bonn he conducted experiments to investigate cathode rays which were later to bring him the highest awards in science.

Lenard moved to Kiel in 1898 where, as head of the institute he established a new Institute of Physics. Charlotte Schmidt-Schönbeck quotes his motives in her book on the history of physics at Kiel University: "On the other hand I was determined to proceed with complete ruthlessness as I had accepted the position only in order to be able to have at last a fully equipped place of work without restrictions and impediments. As an assistant and second in command I had yielded on everything in order to make my superiors as pleasant as possible to me. I was now making demands for myself."

The nine years in Kiel are among Lenard's most productive. It was here that in 1900 he discovered the most important regularities of the photo-electric effect. He developed the "dynamide model" of the atom – a precursor of modern atomic models which state that the greatest part of the atom is empty. Finally, in 1905, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for "important work on cathode rays". In 1907 Lenard moved to Heidelberg to take up the position of Director of the Institute for Physics and Radiology.

While "he showed no interest in politics" during his time in Kiel according to Schmidt-Schönbeck, he abruptly changed at the beginning of the First World War in1914 when Great Britain's declaration of war on Germany kindled in him a long-borne personal grudge against this British research colleagues. He was unable to accept that Joseph John Thomson had published his work on cathode rays in 1897 without even mentioning Lenard's earlier work. He saw the First World War as a struggle between "German culture" and "western civilisation". His enthusiasm for the fatherland was followed by the shock of German capitulation in 1918, which heightened his National Socialism and anti-semitism. Lenard considered experimental physics to be a "nordic science" which was superior to the "jewish flummery" of theoretical physics.

After World War I Lenard noticeably went his own way both in his private life and as a scientist. He found no sympathy with the modern discoveries of physics and argued against Einstein's theory of relativity, not least because of his anti-semitic prejudices. During the 1920 Natural Science Conference in Bad Nauheim he publicly attacked Albert Einstein and finally resigned from the German Physics Society (Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft). He publicly announced his loyalty to Hitler in the 1924 appeal "Hitlergeist und Wissenschaft" (The Hitler Spirit and Science).

After his retirement in 1930, Lenard occupied himself primarily with the development of physical laws from a historical perspective. He published the multi-volume text-book "Deutsche Physik" (German Physics). His assessment of achievements in the domain of physics is deeply marked by his political leaning. He considered that true discoveries in the natural sciences could only be achieved by the "Aryan race". Einstein's work, on the other hand, was "jewish fraud". Lenard, who had already made his Heidelberg Institute a "jew-free" centre of the political right, was honoured by the National Socialist party. During the Nazi period he stated that all supporters of modern quantum physics were "representatives of the jewish spirit in the German Reich" and, by this campaign of hatred, contributed to the prohibition of research into this field in Germany during that period.

After the end of the Second World War he left Heidelberg at the age of 83 and moved to Messelhausen in Baden. As a result of his advanced years the Americans spared him from de-nazification measures. He died in 1947.

At the Physics Conference in 1947 the posthumous assessment of Lenard used the following words "We neither can nor wish to hide or pardon the errors of Lenard the pseudo-politician, but Lenard the physicist is counted among the greats." (quoted after the German Biographical Encyclopaedia)

Sandra Sieraad

The Lenard window

Lenard was award the Nobel Prize in Physics for his fundamental research in the field of cathode rays. Cathode rays are created in a gas discharge tube (similar to a conventional TV tube). Lenard discovered that the radiation could leave the discharge tube through a narrow window made from aluminium foil (the Lenard window); this was an early indication of the "porous" structure of material and the void in the centre of atoms. The Lenard window made it possible to conduct research into radiation independently of the process that generated the radiation, for example in a vacuum which was maintained during the research, or under atmospheric pressure. He was therefore able to identify the radiation as negatively charged particles with a very low mass; the term “electron” was later generally adopted for them. The discovery of short wave X rays by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was based on further developments to Lenard's cathode ray tubes. Lenard provided him with suitable discharge tubes from his own stocks and, during his lifetime, never forgave Röntgen for not mentioning this help in his papers or lectures.

For further reading:

  • Schmidt-Schönbeck, Charlotte. 300 Jahre Physik und Astronomie an der Kieler Universität. Kiel 1965
  • Deutsche Biographische Enzyklopädie
  • Alan D. Beyerchen: Wissenschaftler unter Hitler: Physiker im Dritten Reich, Frankfurt a.M. 1982.
  • Michael Grüttner: Biographisches Lexikon zur nationalsozialistischen Wissenschaftspolitik, Heidelberg 2004.

►  Back to top

Responsible for this page: Press, Communication und Marketing Services
phone +49 (0)431 880-2104, e-Mail ►