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5— Early Years in Marburg
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Home Life

Kolbe's domestic life must have served as a psychological anchor during these troubled times. Already by September 1852 he had successfully courted his future wife, Charlotte von Bardeleben. Then twenty years old, Charlotte was the youngest daughter of General-Major Wilhelm von Bardeleben, a fifty-five-year-old officer in the Hessian army, a decorated veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and then commander of the Marburg garrison. Her mother was Johanna née


Holzförster, the daughter of a physician.[40] The Bardelebens appear to have been reasonably prosperous, though by no means wealthy, and provided a small dowry.[41] After an initially difficult time with his future in-laws—they had had little time to get to know him before the engagement—Kolbe was soon well reconciled with the family.[42] It was probably at this time that Kolbe converted from the Lutheran to the Reformed Church. The wedding took place on 10 May 1853, after which the couple spent three weeks on a honeymoon at the Vieweg home in Braunschweig.[43] Kolbe's letters to friends exude the purest bliss in connection with his marriage, both at this time and ever after. Shortly before the wedding he wrote Vieweg praising his future wife's domestic and economic virtues and looking forward to making good use of the new "peace and spare time" that "a married man" naturally enjoys. He later admitted to having been a very bad housekeeper before his marriage.[44]

Charlotte Kolbe was devoted to her husband and children, as well as to her parents, both of whom died in 1859. Not much detail about her is revealed in Kolbe's correspondence. The only direct testimony about her was from her second cousin (and eventual son-in-law), Ernst yon Meyer, who described her as a woman of rare kindheartedness, possessing a true philosophy of life and an "exquisite inclination toward genuine cheerfulness," in sum, a "figure of light."[45] Her health was not robust. She escaped a typhus epidemic in the winter of 1855-56, but nearly died when it struck again in the summer of 1861; it took her almost a year to fully recover. A nearly fatal uterine infection in the spring of 1865 similarly required several months' convalescence.[46] She also suffered periodically from serious respiratory and liver complaints.

Their first child, a daughter born in early May 1854, died three days later of a spinal hemorrhage. Kolbe, and more especially his wife, were heartbroken.[47] Guthrie gives a brief but engaging portrait of their relationship as viewed by Kolbe's students that summer: "He (Kolbe) is terribly wrapped up in his wife and comes into the lab. with as serene and demure a face as if we hadn't seen her kiss him a moment before at the window."[48] On 27 September 1855, Kolbe's thirty-seventh birthday, a healthy boy was born whom they named Carl, after his paternal grandfather. Both grandfathers as well as Vieweg came to Marburg for the christening in October.[49] The next child, Johanna, named after her maternal grandmother, was born on 18 February 1857.[50] Carl was eventually to study chemistry with his father, and Johanna was to marry one of her father's students, Ernst von Meyer. Three of the remaining five of Charlotte's pregnancies resulted in miscarriages, one of which resulted in the serious infection mentioned


above. Two more Kolbe daughters, Maria and Elisabeth, were born in June 1860 and January 1868, respectively.[51]

According to the testimony cited below, Kolbe and his wife socialized actively early in their marriage (Frankland's reminiscences show how many opportunities there were for socials, parties, balls, and such in Marburg). However, after Johanna was born they withdrew into a very small circle. They both hated parties, Kolbe once confessed to Vieweg.[52] In response to Vieweg's surmise in the fall of 1859 that Kolbe's social life was interfering with his timely production of manuscript, Kolbe answered

For two years I have been living like a real hermit, and have been (not to brag about myself) quite industrious. To be sure, at the beginning of my marriage I had a rather heavy social schedule, but for a long time it has been limited to a few families and solid men, who really provide intellectual stimulation, even if not in my field. From personal experience I know that there is a danger in the circumstance that in such a small town as Marburg so many people know you, and must know you; I need only open my eyes to see how many scholars are thereby destroyed. I have long since vanquished the power of these relationships, and have shaken off all obligatory social intercourse. My wife and I both feel very happy doing so.[53]

This is the most extensive description of their restricted social circle, but there are other similar passages in Kolbe's correspondence after 1856.[54] The Kolbes only resumed socializing actively around 1869.

Like his wife, Kolbe did not enjoy vigorous health. In 1841 he suffered from jaundice, and Frankland reported that in London he was frequently ill, complained of a bad heart, and asserted that he would not live long.[55] He was subject to frequent bouts of bad colds and influenza, each usually resulting in a week's confinement in bed; for instance, in one fifteen-month period (December 1853 to March 1855) he reported five such illnesses to Vieweg.[56] His letters reveal frequent worry about these illnesses, although one also contains the observation that he is a "fatalist" regarding serious diseases such as typhus.[57] In two letters from the 1870s he expressed the hope of living at least to the mid-1890s; he fell a decade short of this goal.[58]

A period of very serious health problems began early in 1857. On 24 March he wrote Vieweg

What must you think of me, that you haven't heard anything at all from me for so long.—I don't know what it is with me, I am not my old self any more. Sick since January, unable to work, for the last three weeks confined to bed; only a couple of days ago was I able to leave my bed,


and still feel very weak, so that writing really exhausts me. This time a gastric catarrhal fever afflicted me; the doctor thinks it is very much connected with my rheumatism of last summer. The intolerable catarrh has now eased somewhat, so that now at least I have sighted land.[59]

But it must have been within a day or two after writing this that he was struck with a high fever, which left him in bed for weeks with excruciating rheumatism in his joints. In the middle of April he was still strongly affected, barely able to write. A second attack in late April was even worse, confining him to bed for two weeks with such violent pain he could scarcely move a muscle; a third attack in May laid him up another week.[60]

There followed a long period of slow convalescence, with thin water gruels, sweat cures, and Spanish fly plasters. He was able to begin his lectures again by early June, but delivered them all summer in his slippers due to the pain and found them exhausting. A half-hour's work at his desk often put him into such a state of perspiration that a change of clothes was necessary.[61] A number of small relapses occurred that summer, but by the end of August he could spend a couple hours at a time writing. In autumn he continued to improve; however, attacks of influenza in December 1857 and February 1858 further complicated matters. In May 1858 he was struck once more with the same rheumatic fever. This time he decided to try a mineral-bath cure to alleviate the rheumatic symptoms, although he was skeptical of its medical efficacy. To his surprise, two weeks into a four-week stay in Wiesbaden he felt enormously improved; the only annoying aspect was the enforced idleness that his physician had imposed. After his return to Marburg he reported feeling "newly reborn."[62]

Nonetheless, he was never thereafter able to free himself fully from the effects of rheumatism. After a severe recurrence in the summer of 1861 he decided to try Bad Nauheim, closer to Marburg and cheaper than Wiesbaden.[63] He continued to return to Nauheim nearly every year, even after his transfer to Leipzig, though he gradually transferred his allegiance to more distant destinations such as Marienbad in Bohemia, Sassnitz on the Baltic Sea in Prussia, and Gersau on the Lake of Lucerne in Switzerland. As his finances continued to improve while his health slowly got worse, he would regularly visit such resorts twice or more in the same year.

There were psychological and emotional symptoms of his illnesses, as well; conversely, as Kolbe himself conjectured, his physical symptoms may have been exacerbated by his emotional problems. In describing to Vieweg in October 1859 Zwenger's past "Machinationen" against him, Kolbe said the dispute made him long to leave Marburg


but that it had not upset his work. His illness, however, had been more problematical:

To be sure, I was earlier disturbed in so far as my illness was the sole consequence of my intense emotional agitation [die alleinige Folge der heftigen Gemüthsbewegungen] and of my anger over this stroke of fate. But I have long since conquered this.[64]

Some passages in letters from the following year also suggest emotional distress. In April the "unremitting east wind" was "getting on everyone's nerves"; his enemies were whispering in Liebig's ear against him, he conjectured both to Vieweg and to Liebig himself.[65] Zeller had conspired against him, he thought, to deny him the Tübingen call (this seems to have been true).[66] In October he complained of an "irritated-nervous state" (nervös-gereizte Stimmung) and a bad mood or depression (Verstimmung) lasting for weeks, which made him incapable of any serious work. He blamed this mood on the Hessian ministry, which made him personally liable for deficits in his laboratory budget that year. This decree from the administration was a "bolt from the blue" that had him "beside himself" (ausser Fassung) for weeks. His only hope, he said, was that the "bigoted reactionary" government would not last much longer.[67]

In July 1861 he again complained of a "deep depression" (tiefe Verstimmung), lasting "some months," which made him unable to do any serious mental work, connected with physical exhaustion from lectures and laboratory supervision. He thought this exhaustion had led to symptoms of his old rheumatism that were beginning to reappear. "I myself believe," he added, "that my current indisposition is not purely physical, but is also connected with severe depression."[68] In March 1862 he was again struck with physical exhaustion, which for two weeks prevented him from working; he thought it may have been an effect of the bad laboratory air.[69] Over the years, he complained periodically of "nervous exhaustion" and often blamed the lab work that forced him continually to breathe noxious vapors.[70]

Kolbe's writings after 1870 gave many contemporary and later observers the idea that he may have been mentally ill, suffering symptoms of paranoia, delusions of grandeur, and inappropriate rage. Whether this behavior was connected to his health problems of the late 1850s and early 1860s remains uncertain. What seems beyond question, though, is that beginning in 1857 Kolbe had a series of severe illnesses, a number of rancorous collegial disputes, and a sharply reduced social life. The death of his mother in 1856 and the birth of Johanna early in 1857 may have been psychological factors in this


change. Kolbe drew emotional sustenance from his family, his students, and a small circle of correspondents including above all Vieweg, but also Bunsen, Liebig, Varrentrapp, and a few others. This pattern did not appreciably change for the rest of his life.

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5— Early Years in Marburg
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