1891 – 1955
Gertrud Kornfeld’s life epitomises both the successes and frustrations of women scientists in academia in the first half of the twentieth century. She was the first woman scientist to receive an academic appointment in chemistry at the University of Berlin when she obtained the “venia legendi” to lecture in physical chemistry at the university (Privatdozent). Indeed, she was the first woman lecturer in chemistry at any university in Germany.
The daughter of an industrial merchant in Bohemia, Gertrud Kornfeld was born in Prague on July 25, 1891. Her family belonged to the German-speaking middle-class Jewish community in the city. She received an excellent education, first at a German school for girls, then at a gymnasium for boys, where she passed the Austrian Abitur, the prerequisite for university entry. From 1910 until 1915 she studied chemistry, physical chemistry and physics at the German University in Prague. (The famous ancient Charles University in Prague was divided into two—one Czech and one German—at the end of the nineteenth century.) In 1915 she completed her Ph.D. thesis at the German University and was appointed assistant to her mentor Viktor Rothmund (1870–1927). From World War I it became possible for women scientists to receive academic positions as assistants at several universities, similar to the one Gertrud Kornfeld held at the German University in Prague from 1915 until 1918.
Because Kornfeld and her family were German-speaking, with the establishment of the Czech Republic in 1918 she left Prague and moved to Germany. As a former assistant of Viktor Rothmund she very soon received a position as assistant to the famous Max Bodenstein (1871–1942) at the Technical College in Hannover, where she remained from 1919 until 1923. When Max Bodenstein was appointed professor at the University of Berlin in 1923, Gertrud Kornfeld followed him as an assistant at the university’s Institute for Physical Chemistry. In 1928 she became a lecturer in physical chemistry at the University of Berlin—the first woman in this field. She also retained her position as assistant. Gertrud Kornfeld liked to teach and served as advisor to several doctoral candidates under the direction of Bodenstein.
In the autum of 1933, when the Nazi laws cost Gertrud Kornfeld her positions as lecturer and assistant, she immediately left for Great Britain. Thanks to the support of the newly established Academic Assistance Council (later the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning), Gertrud Kornfeld received several grants, first at the University of Birmingham, then at the university in Vienna. But as a woman scientist she was unable to attain the relatively high position she had held in Germany. In 1937, with the help of the American Federation of University Women she was granted a visitor’s visa to the United States, enabling her to search for an academic position in that country. She finally became a researcher at the Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, where she worked until her death on July 4, 1955.
Despite having to change her life and scientific career three times, Gertrud Kornfeld managed to work in science throughout her life, first at universities and later in the laboratory of a large industrial trust. Gertrud Kornfeld never married.
Bio-bibliographical reports in: Poggendorff. Vol. VI (1937), 1384; Poggendorff, Vol. VIIa (1958): 880 (Poggendorff: Biographisch-Literarisches Handwörterbuch zur Geschichte der exakten (Natur)wissenschaften. Bd.III–VIIb. Leipzig u.a.: since 1898–); Archive of the Charles University Prague: Matrikel, thesis documents; Archive of the Berlin University (Archiv HUB): Phil. Fak. Nr. 1243, pp. 17–39; PA Nr. 271 (1929–1933, 19 pages); SPSL Archive, Oxford: personal file 218/3, pp.51–145 (personal file, 1933–1938 + 1955); Literature: List of Displaced German Scholars. London: 1936; Biographisches Handbuch der Emigration, Vol.II, 1 (1983), 651; Röder, Werner, and Herbert A. Strauss, eds. International Biographical Dictionary of Central European Emigrés 1933–1945. München: 1980–1983.