A pioneer and specialist in the fields of skin biochemistry and dermatology, Bavaria-born scientist Berta Ottenstein received her doctoral degree in chemistry in 1914, after which she began to pursue a career in the medical sciences. In 1931 she became the first woman lecturer in the Medical Faculty at the University of Freiburg. The ascendency of Nazism in Germany forced Ottenstein to flee two years later; she began her scientific career anew as an assistant in the dermatological clinic at the University of Budapest and later as the director of the dermatological clinic at the University of Istanbul. In 1945 she moved to the United States, where she received a position as a research fellow at Harvard University in the Department of Dermatology.
The life and fate of Berta Ottenstein, a pioneer of skin biochemistry and an outstanding dermatologist, epitomize both the successes and frustrations of women scientists in academia in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. The first and only woman lecturer on the Medical Faculty of the University of Freiburg (in south Germany), she was forced to flee from Nazi Germany and go into exile, where she had once again to start her scientific career as a researcher.
Berta Ottenstein was born on March 27, 1891, in Nuremberg, Bavaria, as the youngest of six children in a merchant family. She was able to avail herself of the newly established educational institutions for girls and, on completing her schooling, to study science at the university in Erlangen. After receiving her doctoral degree in chemistry in 1914, Berta Ottenstein worked at various institutions, first in chemistry and later in the medical sciences, becoming an outstanding specialist in dermatology, of which she investigated the biochemical basis.
In 1927 she was a guest scholar at the famous Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biochemistry in Berlin-Dahlem, under its director Carl Neuberg (1877–1956), moving in 1928 to the University of Freiburg where she obtained a position as an assistant. In 1931 she obtained the “venia legendi” for lecturing in dermatology, becoming the first woman lecturer at the Medical Faculty. However, she was able to work there as an acknowledged scientist and colleague for only a short time. In 1933 she lost her position because of the Nazi accession to power and had to leave Germany immediately.
Although she had held a relatively high academic position in Germany, Ottenstein had to begin her scientific career again in exile. From 1933 until 1935 she held a position as assistant at the dermatological clinic of the University of Budapest. From 1935 to 1945 she was a lecturer at the University of Istanbul, where she became director of the university’s dermatological clinic. This new academic career in post-Atatürk Istanbul sounded much better than it really was. In 1945 she moved to the United States, where she received a position as a research fellow in the Department of Dermatology at Harvard University and worked in a department of the New England Medical Center in Boston. In 1951 she received American citizenship; in the same year the University of Freiburg appointed her to an extraordinary professorship by way of “compensation.” Berta Ottenstein never married. She died near Concord, Massachusetts on June 17, 1956.
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Archive SPSL, Oxford: Baeck-List of Displaced German Scholars, Hartshorne-List; Literature: List of Displaced German Scholars. London: 1936, 62
Schmialek, Anja. Professor Dr. Bertha Ottenstein (1891–1956), erste habilitierte Dermatologin Deutschlands.–Leben und Werk. Dissertation, Medical Faculty, University of Freiburg in Breisgau, 1996, pp. 89–98 list of publications of Berta Ottenstein (1921–1955).
Weyers, Wolfgang. Death of Medicine in Nazi Germany: Dermatology and Dermatopathology under the Swastika. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1998.
Vogt, Annette. Women Scientists in Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, from A to Z (Dictionary). Berlin: 1999, pp. 116.