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5— Early Years in Marburg
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Settling in

Daniel Hassenpflug, the Kurhessian interior minister, obviously knew that he was in a position of strength in his contract negotiations with Kolbe; his ministry reduced the laboratory budget from 1000 to 700 thalers and offered Kolbe only half of Bunsen's salary, 600 rather than 1200 thalers. This was only three-fourths the salary Wöhler had been given at the Kassel Gewerbeschule twenty years earlier and was also less than Bunsen had accepted for an Extraordinarius position at Marburg in 1839. Desperate as he was, Kolbe had little choice but to accept the poor conditions. He moved from Braunschweig to Marburg on 7 May, took the oath of office on the 9th, and on the following day the Chemical Institute was ceremoniously opened and delivered to him.[13] Two days later, homesick for Braunschweig, he wrote to Vieweg saying that he planned to begin his lectures in a week; the laboratory was in a "desolate" condition, and it would take that long to get it even roughly into shape.[14] Although the lab was very familiar to Kolbe—he had worked there off and on for the past nine years—most of the inventory had been Bunsen's personal property, which he had understandably taken with him to Breslau.

Bunsen's laboratory was the first satisfactory chemical teaching and research facility at the University of Marburg, and it had been operating for ten years at the time of Kolbe's arrival. In 1825 a small uni-


versity laboratory had displaced a Freemason's lodge in the former refectory and dormitory of the thirteenth-century monastery known as the Deutsches Haus, which to this day stands beside the early Gothic church of St. Elizabeth, on the Lahn River at the foot of the Schlossberg below Marburg Castle. When in 1841 Bunsen was promoted to ordentlicher Professor and was transferred from the medical faculty to the philosophical faculty, he expanded the facility and began instructing a small number of advanced students there. The meager laboratory budget, initially 600 thalers per year, was insufficient even for current expenses, not to mention the capital expense of stocking with apparatus, reagents, and preparations, so that Bunsen had been forced to spend his own money for this purpose. The servant's salary also came from Bunsen's pocket. By mid-century the lab was outmoded and in no way comparable to those at Giessen or Göttingen. In 1849 Tyndall referred to the "scoundrel-like appearance" of the place, while praising its master to the sky. Other university occupants in the Deutsches Haus were pharmacy, zoology, midwifery, and lying-in, as well as the court treasury office. The only thing to be said for the ancient building is that the six-foot-thick walls provided excellent temperature stability for eudiometric measurements![15]

The entire university was in an undernourished and unhealthy condition. Marburg had a long and proud history—it was the first university to be founded as Protestant—but on Kolbe's arrival, there were only 31 full professors and 262 students, making it one of the smallest universities in Germany. Eight years later the enrollment had fallen to 216. Both university and town were narrow-minded and provincial. Frankland was the first Englishman ever to take a Ph.D. in Marburg, and he averred that in Marburg Englishmen were "considered to be more or less mad." His future wife Sophie Fick he guessed to be the only woman in town who could speak English.[16] Frederick Guthrie, who studied with Kolbe from 1854 to 1855, wrote home to a friend soon after his arrival of the "very sleepy hollowism which prevails in this dreary valley of desolation;" he referred to himself, perhaps not entirely tongue in cheek, as "the one civilized inhabitant of Marburg."[17] But the troubles in the university were due to more than provincialism; they were also the result of political problems in Hesse-Kassel, problems that had reached a state of crisis when Kolbe arrived in Marburg.

After 1815 Hesse-Kassel retained its status, though now meaningless, as an electorate of the Holy Roman Empire (hence its synonym Electoral Hesse or Kurhessen ), under the successive reigns of their Royal Highnesses Wilhelm I, Wilhelm II, and Friedrich Wilhelm. All three were equally arbitrary and avaricious, and inveterate enemies of


constitutional and industrial reform. They enforced strict religious orthodoxy, refused to countenance new industries or factories (fearing nuclei of social unrest), engaged in a devastating tariff war with Prussia, and delayed the development of railroads. Ripple effects from the July revolution of 1830 in France provided only a brief respite; from 1832 Friedrich Wilhelm found a henchman in Interior Minister Hassenpflug. Hassenpflug's administration was so hated that puns on his name soon proliferated: "Hessenfluch," "Hessens Hass und Fluch," or Bismarck's priceless coinage "Kassenfluch in Hurhessen."[18] Hassenpflug finally managed to alienate even the elector, who discharged him in 1837.

The revolution of 1848 forced Friedrich Wilhelm to agree to thoroughgoing reforms, but they did not last. With the failure of the revolution and the onset of reaction, Hassenpflug was brought back to lead the administration. He and his sovereign were so heartily despised that this proved difficult. In September 1850 Friedrich Wilhelm dissolved the uncooperative diet and put the country under martial law, but he had no army, as virtually the entire Hessian officer corps promptly resigned. He and Hassenpflug then fled to Frankfurt to seek the aid of the German federal diet, which proved more cooperative. On 1 November, a Bavarian-Austrian force occupied the country. The Prussians, who relied on free transit through Hesse-Kassel for access to its Rhine provinces, were disconcerted, and war between Prussia and Austria threatened. But Prussia was then in no position to fight, and it was forced to yield to the federally sponsored occupation. A new constitution was promulgated in the spring of 1852, one which imposed few restrictions on the elector. The reactionary regime survived until the resurgence of Prussia in the 1860s.[19]

This political atmosphere had made it very easy for Bunsen to decide to leave Marburg, and other colleagues were leaving as well. Kolbe was the first professor to be hired after Hassenpflug's return; since he had never been Privatdozent, many on the faculty assumed he was unqualified and had been selected for political reasons. It was not even clear that a scholar who had never habilitated was legally entitled to a full professorship. Even worse, Kolbe was replacing the university's most distinguished professor. So Kolbe's arrival was greeted with a good deal of mistrust on the part of his colleagues; as he later put it, his position was seriously undermined by partly malicious and partly thoughtless gossip. But by November 1851 he reported to Vieweg that the mistrust had entirely disappeared.[20]

Every semester Kolbe lectured on experimental (inorganic) chemistry six days a week at nine o'clock and taught an eight-hour practicum during the same hours as Bunsen and Wöhler. Advanced Praktikanten


worked mornings from eight to one (including Saturdays) and afternoons two to five, in summers until six. He was given one assistant, with a salary of 200 thalers. Kolbe was also expected to teach a Publikum every semester, lecturing once a week for two hours; these courses embraced such topics as stoichiometry, eudiometry, introduction to organic chemistry, chemistry of daily life, and "discussions on chemical subjects." From winter semester 1855/56, he began to alternate organic with inorganic experimental chemistry, teaching the former every winter semester on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at nine.[21]

Six weeks into his first semester Kolbe wrote Vieweg that he was teaching inorganic experimental chemistry and a Publikum on theoretical organic chemistry, and using his partially written manuscript of the Otto-Graham text for the latter.

I'm having particular fun with this course, and I think I can conclude from the constant interest which my students show for this subject, which is normally so dry since it cannot be illustrated by experiments, that I have pursued the correct path.[22]

He reported that nearly all of the thirty students who began the course were still attending classes, which he thought was unusual. During Kolbe's first three semesters, such positive indications appeared to augur well for the future: he continued to attract reasonable numbers of students, around thirty for his lectures and close twenty Praktikanten. Even better, about a half-dozen of the latter were foreigners.[23]

What soon became clear, however, is that these indications of a healthy institute had more to do with the reputation that Bunsen had established than with anything Kolbe had done. The average numbers in all of Kolbe's classes dropped by about a third during the early 1850s, and the supply of foreigners—the cherished symbol of a reputable program—dried up. Between 1853 and 1861, he had at most one or two Praktikanten from abroad at a time, and for nine semesters none at all. The number of chemistry majors fell precipitously; for instance, between 1857 and 1861 only one new major enrolled. In some semesters he had trouble reaching a total of twenty students in all of his classes combined. This dismal situation was partly caused by the political climate in the town and university, which made study there less attractive; Kolbe also blamed his miserly administration. Equally relevant, however, was Kolbe's own failure to mount a highly visible research program during his first eight years in Marburg. As early as 1853 Kolbe could detect the trend. Not only was enrollment bad, but good faculty were accepting calls elsewhere. Although the university


had had prospects for becoming a good place to study science, he wrote Vieweg, he now doubted that this would happen.[24]

In all, Kolbe taught around 240 Praktikanten during his twenty-nine semesters at Marburg, of whom 216 names can be documented. Eighteen of these men took Ph.D.s with Kolbe, and another ten were authors of papers from the lab and/or were postdoctoral guest workers. Thirty-three were foreign: ten Russians, eight Englishmen, five Swiss, three Scots, three Americans, an Irishman, a Bolivian, a New Zealander, and a Dane.[25] Due to the vagaries of surviving data, a reliable analysis of the fields of study of the Praktikanten is possible only for six semesters early in Kolbe's stay (winter semester 1851/52 to winter 1852/53, and winter 1854/55 to winter 1855/56). Aggregate numbers from these six semesters show that no less than sixty-four percent of the lab workers gave "natural sciences" as their university subject, and about sixteen percent indicated "chemistry." Only ten percent indicated "pharmacy;" unlike most other German states at this time, Hesse-Kassel required pharmacists to be trained in a separate university institute for pharmacy. The remaining ten percent of Kolbe's students were in miscellaneous fields, mostly medicine or philosophy. The vast majority of Kolbe's lab students were not studying to become academic chemists, but rather would seek careers in such fields as chemical industry, mineralogy, mining, metallurgy, forestry, agriculture, horticulture, pharmacy, medicine, teaching, and civil service.

Unsystematic data from Kolbe's late Marburg period suggest that these approximate proportions continued, except that as Kolbe's reputation rose, the percentage of chemistry students increased at the expense of the percentage of students of natural sciences. What is striking about all of these numbers is the very high percentage of science students and low numbers of medical students, which contrasts sharply with previous assumptions and calculations.[26] Assuming that there are no serious statistical anomalies here (e.g., large numbers of medical students giving "natural sciences" as their field), we can only conclude that the Marburg medical students preferred to take courses in pharmacy and pharmaceutical chemistry rather than the strongly theoretical organic chemistry of Kolbe. If this is the case, it would help to explain Kolbe's chronically low student numbers and his enmity with the director of the Pharmaceutical Institute, Constantin Zwenger.

Kolbe suffered personally from the paucity of students, as his income (above his inadequate salary, which remained unchanged for ten years) was partly dependent on enrollment. He received 2 louis d'or (about 11 thalers) from each student in his beginner's lab course and 3 louis d'or each from the all-day workers. Starting in winter semester 1861/62, he raised his fee for the all-day practicum to 4 louis d'or


(22 thalers). Each Praktikant also had to pay for his own chemicals. Auditors for his lectures paid 6 thalers for the four-hour and 8 thalers for the six-hour courses. Kolbe often remitted these fees for certain students.[27] The Publika were, of course, always free. As a consequence, Kolbe earned only about 300 thalers per semester from his students in the slower years of the 1850s.[28]

It is possible to arrive at an approximate figure for Kolbe's total income during this period. He was paid by Vieweg for his textbook writing at the rate of 3 louis d'or per sheet (sixteen printed pages);[29] he produced an average of around seven sheets' worth of manuscript per year in the mid-1850s, for about 115 thalers per year. His writing for the Handwörterbuch was less prolific and perhaps less highly paid, though figures are lacking. Since very few students were promoting, he earned little from examination fees, and there is no evidence that he did any consulting work. Thus, counting all sources of income, Kolbe earned about 1400 thalers per year, equivalent then to about U.S. $1000 or £200.[30]

It was not much on which to raise a family in a bourgeois manner. In 1859 he told Vieweg that despite working from morning to evening in the laboratory with his students, his family was living practically hand to mouth, making at most a tenth of the income (from student fees) that Will in Giessen enjoyed.[31] On New Years' Eve of 1860 he complained of the impossibility of maintaining a standard of living "consistent with one's class," for which he would need nearly twice the salary. Moreover, although housing in small-town Marburg was slightly less expensive than in the cities, food and other commodities cost just as much as in Frankfurt or Kassel, a result of the arrival of the railroads.[32] Kolbe repeatedly asked Vieweg for advances and loans, until Vieweg finally rebelled; he sent the requested money, but pointedly indicated how much in arrears Kolbe had gone. The severely chastened Kolbe wrote an abject reply, asking for forgiveness and explaining his habitually poor money management, but he did not stop his practice of regularly prying advances from his friend.[33]

As far as salary alone is concerned, the comparisons shown in Table I will place Kolbe's situation in perspective.[34] Kolbe's salary was clearly on the low end of the scale for the 1850s, when most of his peers were earning over 1000 thalers, and he may have had the lowest actual income of all. Will's salary was even lower than Kolbe's, but Liebig had built up the Giessen enrollments to the point that Will could make a very good living even with a poor salary. As for Liebig's fabulous new salary in Munich, it was clearly based not only on his eminence but also on his condition that he teach no Praktikum, so that he needed to replace that lost income. From 1865 on, salaries for


Table 1 .
Salary Comparisons






In Each Country's Currency

In Kurhessian Thalers




600 florins





600 thalers





1200 florins


ord. Professoren



850-1200 thalers





1200 thalers





200 pounds





6000 francs





3200 florins





1800 dollars





400 pounds





5000 thalers


German Ordinarien in chemistry roughly doubled, to the 1500-4000 thaler range.

Kolbe's problems during the 1850s were partly a product of the attitudes of his administration and partly due to his notable lack of tact or subtlety. For instance, Kolbe's response to his penurious laboratory budget was simply to overspend; on a budget of 700 thalers per year, he was already 800 thalers in the red by 1853. The administration's solution was to amortize the debt by reducing the budget by 150 thalers for each of the following five years. This was "bread and water" in Kolbe's view and not at all in the spirit of how the Chemical Institute had been treated during the Bunsen era. The lab had been virtually empty of apparatus and supplies on his arrival, and the overspending had been necessary as capital expenses; in the future, he assured his ministry, the 700 thaler budget would suffice, but by no means could he survive on 550. His protests fell on deaf ears.

In June 1854 the administration proposed to defray expenses by making each Praktikant pay 10 thalers per semester directly to the university. Kolbe cried foul again, arguing that his students already had to pay anywhere from 5 to 20 thalers or more per semester for their chemicals and supplies, plus his honorarium, making their total costs anywhere from 17 to 40 thalers or more. (The institute's annual budget sufficed only for such continuing expenses as heating and lighting, apparatus, instruments, and the cost of lecuture experiments.) Other


universities were much cheaper, Kolbe argued, and he asserted that the move would hurt enrollments even further. A compromise position was adopted: each student would pay a pro rata contribution at the end of the semester to eliminate whatever deficit had accrued. Kolbe complained bitterly, at one point even threatening to close the lab to students.

Finally, in 1860 the budget was raised modestly to 800 thalers, but Kolbe was to be held personally responsible for any deficits. He now argued that 800 thalers was no longer sufficient. Chemistry was unfairly treated in comparison to medicine and horticulture; the budget for anatomy alone, he said, was 1400 thalers. By 1862, Kolbe's rising star gave him leverage; he overspent every year, daring the administration with impunity to follow through on its threats. After accepting the call to Leipzig in 1865, Kolbe tried to get back at his enemies in the university by publicizing his disputes, but his request to publish his complaints was denied, and his internal report was buried in the university archives.[35]

In fact, Kolbe's assertions were often exaggerated or inaccurate. His budget for the lab was not out of line with what other German universities were providing at the time. As for fees charged to Praktikanten, Göttingen may have been somewhat cheaper, but Giessen was a bit more expensive. The price that students paid to study in Marburg was probably fairly typical of the day. Furthermore, Germany was in general financially very attractive compared to the relatively more expensive universities in England and America.[36]

The real problem was that Kolbe's models for the function of an academic laboratory, namely, as serving both scientific pedagogy and scientific research and as an integral part of the university, were Liebig's lab in Giessen and Wöhler's in Göttingen. Liebig had gradually succeeded in persuading the authorities of Hesse-Darmstadt to support his lab adequately by means of an annual budget; Wöhler had arrived at what was then probably the only reasonably endowed lab in Germany. This would prove to be the model for the future, a model that was already in evidence by the 1840s. Bunsen, in contrast, had at least while in Marburg followed the older pattern of stocking the lab out of his own pocket and using it virtually as private property, even though he had a budget for apparatus and glassware. This approach was a residue of the era when many chemistry professors ran private pharmaceutical institutes on the side, as Liebig had between 1826 and 1835.[37] Since Hassenpflug may have shared this assumption, it is little wonder that his ministry did not understand or appreciate Kolbe's constant requests.

Similarly, Kolbe had adopted Liebig's attitude toward the place of


the study of chemistry in higher education. Natural science, it was thought, was a vital element of liberal education, highly valuable even for future lawyers, ministers, and civil servants, in that one learns thereby to think clearly and logically. A thorough grounding in scientific theory was a necessary foundation not just for future academics but also for future practical chemists, since applications come not from random trial and error but from deep understanding. Finally, laboratory experience was vital to learn the science properly at all. These attitudes were in conflict with the older image of chemistry as mere industrial soap boiling and drug compounding, a view still held by many of Kolbe's colleagues and superiors. Kolbe particularly resented the middle-level committees, composed of faculty colleagues largely from law and the humanities, that oversaw their charges with a combination of ignorance and malice and treated him like a schoolboy who had exceeded his allowance.

But Kolbe made a pest of himself over small issues as well as large ones, and his truculence gradually isolated him from his faculty colleagues as well as from the administration. He was hot-tempered, self-righteous, and more than a little arrogant. His violent disagreements with the mathematician Friedrich Stegmann drew an official rebuke by the prorector, as did his purchase with university funds of an expensive bust of Liebig for his lecture room. The liberal theologian Eduard Zeller, with whom Kolbe was good friends in 1853, later derailed a possible call to Tübingen when he apparently described Kolbe to the Württemburg authorities as a rude and insufferable man. Kolbe's relationship with the director of the Pharmaceutical Institute, Constantin Zwenger, was worst of all; he repeatedly accused Zwenger of undermining his position and poisoning his friendships. The details of these entanglements, which became heated from the summer of 1857 on, cannot be discerned from surviving documents, and it is unclear to what extent Kolbe was personally to blame for the problems.[38] But despite these disagreements, he seems to have had at least a few good collegial friends.[39]

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5— Early Years in Marburg
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