University

History of the RUG, part 2 (1876-1945)

Fire, bullies & timid women

Eerste slide: Voorpagina met Chapeau en kop1
University

History of the RUG, part 2 (1876-1945)

Fire, bullies
& timid women

01-1 intro
In 1876, the Groningen university was almost done for. However, it prevailed, and entered a period of renewed growth. A period in which the Academy building burnt down, Vindicat bullied the city’s people, timid women finally started teaching, brilliant scientists worried about telepathy, and the coming war was being felt in Groningen.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen
1-2 tekst brand vervolg

1876 – 1945

‘The Academy lives on!’ read the telegram that was sent to the Provinciale Groninger Courant on Friday, 17 March. The Lower House had decided to preserve not two, but three universities: Leiden, Utrecht, and Groningen.

Vindicat cancelled the plans for a funus – an academic mourning ritual – and activated plan B: a big party involving a serenade and a parade through the city centre. Music society De Harmonie held a recital, business owners held a reception for the university, and a big ball was thrown.

For years, the university had been close to being done for. No investments were coming in, and the student numbers had decreased to a paltry 189. But now it was time for a transformation.

In the years that followed the university – now a state university – managed to flourish. They built new, modern institutes. Academic greats such as Heymans, Kapteyn, and Zernike made their way to the University of the North and the student numbers increased.

RUG professor of history Klaas van Berkel wrote the enormous second part of his three-part epic (University of the North) about this period. The book will be presented on 27 October. The UK picked five interesting incidents from almost 75 years of history.

02-1

1. The fire

August 1906

3-1 tekst brand

A sloppily extinguished fire

The heart of the Groningen university was destroyed by a stupid mistake on 30 August, 1906. The Academy building burnt down completely from a sloppily extinguished fire in the attic.

After it was thought to have been put out, the fire unexpectedly flared up again, and the flames spread to the rest of the attic. A coachman warned custodian Carel Coenraad Geertsema, who lived just around the corner in the Oude Boteringestraat. He ran inside, but found the door to the attic firmly locked. The only person with the key was professor of zoology Van Ankum’s servant; the attic held the precious collection of stuffed animals and animal specimens.

When the fire brigade finally arrived to break open the door, the space was filled with smoke. Unfortunately, the hastily unrolled fire-hoses only produced a weak trickle of water; the water pressure was too low.

And so Geertsema was forced to watch as the fire tore its way through the adjacent rooms, ‘crackling and blazing’. The giraffe, the rhinoceros, the horse skeleton, and the ‘small but angry tiger skeleton’, were all lost to the fire. ‘Oh, it was a ghastly sight’, Geertsema said later, ‘but we had to leave; it became too dangerous.’

3-2 tekst brand vervolg

Personal drama

The professors’ portraits were dragged outside, equipment removed from laboratories, the archive emptied out – everything was removed. But the ‘mother house’, as Gerard Heymans later called it, the place where students and professors met, was lost. For Van Ankum, the zoologist, the drama was a personal one. Since his appointment, he had spent all his energy on completing the collection of stuffed animals and specimens that had been started by Petrus Camper and Van Swinderen. Only three years earlier, he had found a unique embryo inside the carcass of white-beaked dolphin that had washed up. It was the pride of an already impressive collection.

But now, he had in the blink of an eye lost his entire collection, save one piece: a squirrel in a glass that he had coincidentally taken home with him earlier. Van Ankum was so upset that he resigned.

And yet. ‘For the university as a whole, that fire was a blessing in disguise’, says Klaas van Berkel. The government, who claimed to never have enough money to invest in the academy, now forked over a generous amount. ‘Normally, they would have delayed that endlessly. But now they were forced to give the university money.’

3-3 tekst brand vervolg 2

Brand new laboratories

That money was sorely needed. The Academy building had been cheaply constructed fifty years previously, using municipal money, because the State wouldn’t pay for the moribund university. The building was dark, much too small, and lacking in style. The laboratories, too, were too small, and did not meet modern standards, when students and professors both needed them for their research.

The government now approved a new Academy building costing nearly 220,000 guilders. They also freed up money for three brand new laboratories.

‘In that sense the fire expedited the university diaspora, helping it spread across the city’, says Van Berkel. ‘That happened in other cities too, but it went much faster in Groningen.’

Unfortunately, the department that had suffered the most from the fire was not given a new building. Van Berkel: ‘Zoology ended up at the end of a twisting hallway at the Reitemakersreige.’

4-1

2. De Harmonie

Vindicat on the warpath 1892

5-1 Vindicat

Io Vivat

Vindicat’s penchant for bullying commoners goes as far back as the turn of the nineteenth century. On 20 November, 1892, an incident got completely out of hand.

That evening, a large group of students from the association entered music society De Harmonie, where both commoners and students were enjoying a concert. The students demanded the orchestra play their song, Io Vivat. When the orchestra refused, the students started loudly singing the song themselves.

This wasn’t the first time the students made their ‘presence’ felt. They often refused to stay silent during performances and would constantly leave and re-enter the room to get drinks. All just to get a rise out of people. Because the society’s management had expected the evening to get out of hand, the police had been called in advance and were waiting in the wings.

The students were summarily dismissed from the room. Management cancelled their membership.

But Vindicat was outraged as well. The association demanded reparations from De Harmonie, and if that didn’t happen soon enough, Vindicat would break all ties. From then on, membership of De Harmonie would be mutually exclusive with Vindicat membership.

Now both sides had a problem. De Harmonie was dependent on Vindicat’s business. And the students held their annual student ball and soirées at De Harmonie. Not just that, the society was the number one place of entertainment in the city. Vindicat would now have to organise their own parties, and they weren’t sure if they would succeed in the long run.

5-2 Vindicat

Marriageable daughters

In the end, a committee led by a former mayor and Upper House MP had to come up with a solution. De Harmonie was prepared to compromise and grant amnesty to the troublemakers, but they refused the public apology that Vindicat had demanded. Only when it was proposed that the society’s members rather than its management would be granting amnesty, did Vindicat agree.

‘It was one incident of many’, says Van Berkel. ‘The students enjoyed bullying commoners. All in the name of bravado.’

The students were allowed to take these kinds of liberties. After all, they had a close relationship with Groningen’s citizenry. They were sought-after marriage material. ‘Each year, Vindicat held a student ball, inviting the citizenry’s marriageable daughters. Young women from the higher echelons of society often had their debut at these balls. This often led to fine unions, which the citizenry enjoyed.’

Besides, the powers that be – such as mayors, aldermen, or professors – were often willing to let things slide. ‘After all, they were all from the same social circle’, says Van Berkel. ‘It was a very close-knit world.’

5-3 Vindicat

Initiation

In spite of all this, the society’s omnipotence was beginning to show cracks. For decades, the union was assumed to represent all students. And although a large percentage of students never even joined the association, it was Vindicat, and Vindicat alone, that was invited to official university events. ‘There were ascribed a disproportionate amount of importance.’

All this changed after 1900. New associations were founded, cheaper than the prohibitively expensive Vindicat, ones who didn’t engage in the much-feared initiation rites. And even if some of them were disbanded several years later – such as De Groninger Studentenbond – others, such as the catholic association Albertus and the reformed VERA, prevailed.

‘Vindicated considered anyone who wasn’t a member of their association a nobody, pathetic people who didn’t live their lives as students to the fullest’, says Van Berkel. ‘Nevertheless, that group of non-members, or nihilists, slowly but surely increased.’

Very few sources of this important group of people remain, which is why we know so little about them. But Van Berkel is convinced that there was a flourishing social life in Groningen that was not linked to Vindicat. ‘You can tell from certain names, which can be found all over the place. Organising lectures, protesting for peace, joining all kinds of clubs. They may not have been Vindicat members, but they certainly weren’t nobodies.’

6-1

3. Timid women

Finally admitted 1908

Tip 7-1 Bedeesde vrouwen

First female lecturer

Marie Loke had to face facts: as the first female lecturer in the Netherlands – teaching New French – she was an example. And so her public lecture on 15 January, 1908, was imbued with feminist overtones. She spoke about the then unknown female author, Belle van Zuylen.

This may also have been the reason why she became president of the Groningen branch of the Dutch Union for Women’s Suffrage in 1910. But this is where her feminist combativeness ended.

She lived a reclusive life and kept her private life – she lived together with a female social worker – strictly separate from her public appearances. As president of the Union, she barely ever spoke out. She did join the Theosophical Society, but left when she was criticised for this.

Jantina Tammes, who became the first female professor in Groningen in 1911, was just as unassuming. She had been working for Moll, the professor of botany, for a long time, and he had been trying to help her for years.

Tip 7-2 Bedeesde vrouwen

No true daughters of Aletta

He tried to convince her to get her PhD in Brussels after she had written an exceptionally good report about the anatomy of flax stalks. But Tammes balked when she found out she would have to take extra exams.

Moll, who thought that Tammes had immense professorial qualities, kept trying. In 1910, he nominated her for an honorary doctorate, but failed. His colleagues didn’t approve of him nominating a colleague from Groningen. A year later, Moll tried to have her made professor by special appointment. He failed once again, but in 1911 he finally succeeded in getting her that honorary doctorate. It wasn’t until Moll became ill and Tammes replaced him that she actually got paid for her work.

Tammes was hardly the epitome of a feminist. She passed up earlier jobs, because she refused to work more than eight hours a day. She was constantly complaining about her bad health, and she turned down an offer of a prestigious foreign scholarship because she had to take care of her parents. She had the honorary doctorate that Moll had worked so hard to get her mailed to her. And even when she was given a paid appointment, she wasn’t able to start until after the summer, due to an ‘illness that was not further explained’.

They were no ‘true daughters of Aletta Jacobs’, Klaas van Berkel confirms, who suspects it was mental, rather than physical, complaints that held Tammes back. ‘She was so shy!’ he says. ‘I just can’t believe she didn’t even go to pick up her honorary doctorate. I’m like: Girl, come on!’

Tip 7-3 Bedeesde vrouwen

A safe spot near the heater

But, Van Berkel emphasises, it was exactly this timid attitude that ensured these women were accepted. Both of them were good at what they did. ‘Tammes was very good, even.’ Had they also been hellraisers, the established order would have seen them as a threat.

Tammes’ account of her first day at the RUG is significant. She was received by the professor’s assistant. ‘And he, this amiable, friendly man, upon seeing the shy girls, feels it is upon him to protect them; these two who are alone among all the gentlemen’, she said. ‘The women do not have to hang their coats with the gentlemen and they also do not have to wait in the classroom for the professor to enter; come with me to the laboratory and I will warn you when he is here.’

She and another ‘girl student’ would sit near the large heater in the laboratory until Bakker beckoned them. ‘Then they take their place in the lecture hall, very quietly and shy, and sit in the front row, just seconds before the professor enters.’

8-1

4. Paranormal practices

Researching the supernatural 1919

9-1

Telepathic abilities

These days, a good way for a researcher to commit career suicide would be to start investigating the paranormal. Nevertheless, some of the most respected scientists from the RUG’s history had a part in founding the Society for Psychical Research on 4 October 1919. Presiding over the association was the godfather of Dutch psychology Gerard Heymans, the philosopher Brugmans was its secretary, and world famous astronomer Jacobus Cornelis Kapteyn was on the board.

Heymans took things like telepathy or predicting the future extremely seriously. He wanted to invest in proper scientific research into these phenomena. This may have had something to do with his acquaintance with the Groningen maths and physics student, Abraham Sally van Dam. Van Dam alleged having telepathic abilities, and Heymans rushed to get him into his laboratory.

He put the student in a sound-proof, closed-off room and concentrated on one particular square on a chessboard. Van Dam had to then point out which square. Interestingly enough, Van Dam selected the right square more often than chance would predict. The experiment appeared to be watertight. But later researchers pointed out that it was possible that Van Dam had received signals that told him which square to point out.

9-2

All-encompassing world view

For Heymans and his followers, however, the results weren’t surprising at all. Heymans came up with the theory of psychic monism. According to this theory, there is something called a world soul, and the human soul is a temporary compaction of this. ‘In his metaphysical theory, conscious minds were able to flow over into each other’, says Van Berkel.

Heymans’ ideas had an enormous impact. Not just in Groningen, but also far outside it. ‘Heymans was the latest scientist to come up with a truly all-encompassing world view’, says Van Berkel. ‘His reputation was enormous. He personally represented scientific integrity, the world’s conscience. He strived for objectivity. The man was practically a saint.’

We don’t know much about Kapteyn’s world views, but he was good friends with Heymans and Van Berkel thinks he too, was an adherent of psychic monism, just like countless other Groningen scientists.

9-3

Cold and unsympathetic

This did not make these men less critical or scientifically rigorous, however. Heymans and his friends felt it was paramount to study paranormal phenomena from an experimental angle. Unfortunately, this did lead to some problems. Van Dam, for instance, lost his special talent after a while. The normal spiritualists in the Society had also started voicing their complaints. They felt the researchers were far too critical.

During a séance taking place at the house of Simon van der Aa, a law professor, the medium Alfred Vout Peters was making no headway. ‘I get a sense of coldness that you are sending my way’, he said. He therefore advised his colleagues to stop coming to Groningen. ‘The atmosphere there is so cold and unsympathetic that you cannot do anything.’

Heymans stepped down as president in 1925. His successor, Leo Polak, only held the post for two years. Over the next few years, the society slowly declined. From then on, Groningen scientists stayed far away from research into the supernatural.

10-1

5. Impending doom

The run-up to WWII 1933

11-1

Bunker villa with gun range

There was at least one Groningen professor in the thirties who was properly prepared for the upcoming war. As far back as 1936, Heymans’ successor Brugmans, a professor of psychology, had a bunker villa built, calling it Esserkamp.

It may not look it, but the expensive villa at the Hondsruglaan can withstand a bombing attack. The dormer window, for instance, has a concrete sliding hatch, surrounded by steel. The basement is not only fire-proof, but also contains a shooting range. There is even an underground tunnel that leads to the garden.

It’s possible Brugmans was blessed with extraordinary foresight, but Van Berkel has doubts about his mental well-being. ‘When someone spends that much money on an illusion, what does that say about them?’

In spite of the situation with their neighbours to the east, where Hitler had seized power in 1933, and the massive firing of Jews who were already fleeing, the people of Groningen were still living in two worlds, he says. ‘They felt it would all be all right, and that it was an internal, German thing.’

11-2

Prominent German immigrants

In fact, the situation in Germany had a positive effect on the university of Groningen. In the thirties, there was a great influx of brilliant German scientists coming to the RUG. ‘The cream of the crop of the scientific world came to Groningen, at no larger cost than the price of a train ticket’, says Van Berkel. ‘They would stay in the professors’ guest rooms.’

In 1933, the famous number theorist Edmund Landau came to Groningen for several months. He taught classes for six months and finished a book, which was also published in Groningen. After Landau, philosopher Helmuth Plessner, physicist Gerhard Rathenau, and mathematician Kurt Mahler came to the RUG for longer or shorter stays. ‘Over the course of 1934-1935, a mass of often quite prominent German nationals came to Groningen to give lectures’, Van Berkel writes. It was a positive development in the university’s push for internationalisation.

But after the Anschluss in 1938, where Germany annexed Austria, the threat became serious. A group of Dutch physicists, including Dirk Coster from Groningen, started raising money to get Lise Meitner, who was doing groundbreaking work on nuclear fission in Berlin, to Groningen.

And even though they didn’t have enough money, they decided to go get her in June of 1938. Without an exit visa, and pretending to be ‘Mrs. Coster’, Meitner was smuggled across the border by the men. Unfortunately, she was unable to get an appointment at the RUG, and she travelled to Sweden.

11-3

‘It’s time’

Jewish professor Leo Polak had also been talking about the upcoming war for some time. At first he mainly expressed his concerns and tried to support his Jewish colleagues, but now he had started to take precautions. In July of 1939, he sent his large collection of precious books to London, to the English branch of his wife’s family business.

In the meantime, student numbers were slowly declining. Both students and professors were being mobilised. Still, many held out hope that the Netherlands would not have to get involved in the situation. Mobilised medical students were allowed to travel back to Groningen and take their classes in their barracks, dressed in uniform.

On 10 May, Leo Polak wrote the following entry in his diary: ‘It’s time.’ Several days later: ‘Getting poison for all of us. You never know, self-determination to the end.’

mobile versie
In 1876, the Groningen university was almost done for. However, it prevailed, and entered a period of renewed growth. A period in which the Academy building burnt down, Vindicat bullied the city’s people, timid women finally started teaching, brilliant scientists worried about telepathy, and the coming war was being felt in Groningen.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

This is a mobile-friendly simplified version. Switch to desktop view to see the rich format.

‘The Academy lives on!’ read the telegram that was sent to the Provinciale Groninger Courant on Friday, 17 March. The Lower House had decided to preserve not two, but three universities: Leiden, Utrecht, and Groningen.

Vindicat cancelled the plans for a funus – an academic mourning ritual – and activated plan B: a big party involving a serenade and a parade through the city centre. Music society De Harmonie held a recital, business owners held a reception for the university, and a big ball was thrown.

For years, the university had been close to being done for. No investments were coming in, and the student numbers had decreased to a paltry 189. But now it was time for a transformation.

In the years that followed the university – now a state university – managed to flourish. They built new, modern institutes. Academic greats such as Heymans, Kapteyn, and Zernike made their way to the University of the North and the student numbers increased.

RUG professor of history Klaas van Berkel wrote the enormous second part of his three-part epic (University of the North) about this period. The book will be presented on 27 October. The UK picked five interesting incidents from almost 75 years of history.

1. The fire

August 1906

A sloppily extinguished fire

The heart of the Groningen university was destroyed by a stupid mistake on 30 August, 1906. The Academy building burnt down completely from a sloppily extinguished fire in the attic.

After it was thought to have been put out, the fire unexpectedly flared up again, and the flames spread to the rest of the attic. A coachman warned custodian Carel Coenraad Geertsema, who lived just around the corner in the Oude Boteringestraat. He ran inside, but found the door to the attic firmly locked. The only person with the key was professor of zoology Van Ankum’s servant; the attic held the precious collection of stuffed animals and animal specimens.

When the fire brigade finally arrived to break open the door, the space was filled with smoke. Unfortunately, the hastily unrolled fire-hoses only produced a weak trickle of water; the water pressure was too low.

And so Geertsema was forced to watch as the fire tore its way through the adjacent rooms, ‘crackling and blazing’. The giraffe, the rhinoceros, the horse skeleton, and the ‘small but angry tiger skeleton’, were all lost to the fire. ‘Oh, it was a ghastly sight’, Geertsema said later, ‘but we had to leave; it became too dangerous.’

Personal drama

The professors’ portraits were dragged outside, equipment removed from laboratories, the archive emptied out – everything was removed. But the ‘mother house’, as Gerard Heymans later called it, the place where students and professors met, was lost. For Van Ankum, the zoologist, the drama was a personal one. Since his appointment, he had spent all his energy on completing the collection of stuffed animals and specimens that had been started by Petrus Camper and Van Swinderen. Only three years earlier, he had found a unique embryo inside the carcass of white-beaked dolphin that had washed up. It was the pride of an already impressive collection.

But now, he had in the blink of an eye lost his entire collection, save one piece: a squirrel in a glass that he had coincidentally taken home with him earlier. Van Ankum was so upset that he resigned.

And yet. ‘For the university as a whole, that fire was a blessing in disguise’, says Klaas van Berkel. The government, who claimed to never have enough money to invest in the academy, now forked over a generous amount. ‘Normally, they would have delayed that endlessly. But now they were forced to give the university money.’

Brand new laboratories

That money was sorely needed. The Academy building had been cheaply constructed fifty years previously, using municipal money, because the State wouldn’t pay for the moribund university. The building was dark, much too small, and lacking in style. The laboratories, too, were too small, and did not meet modern standards, when students and professors both needed them for their research.

The government now approved a new Academy building costing nearly 220,000 guilders. They also freed up money for three brand new laboratories.

‘In that sense the fire expedited the university diaspora, helping it spread across the city’, says Van Berkel. ‘It happened in other cities too, but it went much faster in Groningen.’

Unfortunately, the department that had suffered the most from the fire was not given a new building. Van Berkel: ‘Zoology ended up at the end of a twisting hallway at the Reitemakersreige.’

2. De Harmonie

Vindicat on the warpath

Io Vivat

Vindicat’s penchant for bullying commoners goes as far back as the turn of the nineteenth century. On 20 November, 1892, an incident got completely out of hand.

That evening, a large group of students from the association entered music society De Harmonie, where both commoners and students were enjoying a concert. The students demanded the orchestra play their song, Io Vivat. When the orchestra refused, the students started loudly singing the song themselves.

This wasn’t the first time the students made their ‘presence’ felt. They often refused to stay silent during performances and would constantly leave and re-enter the room to get drinks. All just to get a rise out of people. Because the society’s management had expected the evening to get out of hand, the police had been called in advance and were waiting in the wings.

The students were summarily dismissed from the room. Management cancelled their membership.

But Vindicat was outraged as well. The association demanded reparations from De Harmonie, and if that didn’t happen soon enough, Vindicat would break all ties. From then on, membership of De Harmonie would be mutually exclusive with Vindicat membership.

Now both sides had a problem. De Harmonie was dependent on Vindicat’s business. And the students held their annual student ball and soirées at De Harmonie. Not just that, the society was the number one place of entertainment in the city. Vindicat would now have to organise their own parties, and they weren’t sure if they would succeed.

Marriageable daughters

In the end, a committee led by a former mayor and Upper House MP had to come up with a solution. De Harmonie was prepared to compromise and grant amnesty to the troublemakers, but they refused the public apology that Vindicat had demanded. Only when it was proposed that the society’s members rather than its management would be granting amnesty, did Vindicat agree.

‘It was one incident of many’, says Van Berkel. ‘The students enjoyed bullying commoners. All in the name of bravado.’

The students were allowed to take these kinds of liberties. After all, they had a close relationship with Groningen’s citizenry. They were sought-after marriage material. ‘Each year, Vindicat held a student ball, inviting the citizenry’s marriageable daughters. Young women from the higher echelons of society often had their debut at these balls. This often led to fine unions, which the citizenry enjoyed.’

Besides, the powers that be – such as mayors, aldermen, or professors – were often willing to let things slide. ‘After all, they were all from the same social circle’, says Van Berkel. ‘It was a very close-knit world.’

Initiation

In spite of all this, the society’s omnipotence was beginning to show cracks. For decades, the union was assumed to represent all students. And although a large percentage of students never even joined the association, it was Vindicat, and Vindicat alone, that was invited to official university events. ‘There were ascribed a disproportionate amount of importance.’

All this changed after 1900. New associations were founded, cheaper than the prohibitively expensive Vindicat, ones who didn’t engage in the much-feared initiation rites. And even if some of them were disbanded several years later – such as De Groninger Studentenbond – others, such as the catholic association Albertus and the reformed VERA, prevailed.

‘Vindicated considered anyone who wasn’t a member of their association a nobody, pathetic people who didn’t live their lives as students to the fullest’, says Van Berkel. ‘Nevertheless, that group of non-members, or nihilists, slowly but surely increased.’

Very few sources of this important group of people remain, which is why we know so little about them. But Van Berkel is convinced that there was a flourishing social life in Groningen that was not linked to Vindicat. ‘You can tell from certain names, which can be found all over the place. Organising lectures, protesting for peace, joining all kinds of clubs. They may not have been Vindicat members, but they certainly weren’t nobodies.’

3. Timid women

Finally admitted 1908

First female lecturer

Marie Loke had to face facts: as the first female lecturer in the Netherlands – teaching New French – she was an example. And so her public lecture on 15 January, 1908, was imbued with feminist overtones. She spoke about the then unknown female author, Belle van Zuylen.

This may also have been the reason why she became president of the Groningen branch of the Dutch Union for Women’s Suffrage in 1910. But this is where her feminist combativeness ended.

She lived a reclusive life and kept her private life – she lived together with a female social worker – strictly separate from her public appearances. As president of the Union, she barely ever spoke out. She did join the Theosophical Society, but left when she was criticised for this.

Jantina Tammes, who became the first female professor in Groningen in 1911, was just as unassuming. She had been working for Moll, the professor of botany, for a long time, and he had been trying to help her for years.

No true daughters of Aletta

He tried to convince her to get her PhD in Brussels after she had written an exceptionally good report about the anatomy of flax stalks. But Tammes balked when she found out she would have to take extra exams.

Moll, who thought that Tammes had immense professorial qualities, kept trying. In 1910, he nominated her for an honorary doctorate, but failed. His colleagues didn’t approve of him nominating a colleague from Groningen. A year later, Moll tried to have her made professor by special appointment. He failed once again, but in 1911 he finally succeeded in getting her that honorary doctorate. It wasn’t until Moll became ill and Tammes replaced him that she actually got paid for her work.

Tammes was hardly the epitome of a feminist. She passed up earlier jobs, because she refused to work more than eight hours a day. She was constantly complaining about her bad health, and she turned down an offer of a prestigious foreign scholarship because she had to take care of her parents. She had the honorary doctorate that Moll had worked so hard to get her mailed to her. And even when she was given a paid appointment, she wasn’t able to start until after the summer, due to an ‘illness that was not further explained’.

They were no ‘true daughters of Aletta Jacobs’, Klaas van Berkel confirms, who suspects it was mental, rather than physical, complaints that held Tammes back. ‘She was so shy!’ he says. ‘I just can’t believe she didn’t even go to pick up her honorary doctorate. I’m like: Girl, come on!’

A safe spot near the heater

But, Van Berkel emphasises, it was exactly this timid attitude that ensured these women were accepted. Both of them were good at what they did. ‘Tammes was very good, even.’ Had they also been hellraisers, the established order would have seen them as a threat.

Tammes’ account of her first day at the RUG is significant. She was received by the professor’s assistant. ‘And he, this amiable, friendly man, upon seeing the shy girls, feels it is upon him to protect them; these two who are alone among all the gentlemen’, she said. ‘The women do not have to hang their coats with the gentlemen and they also do not have to wait in the classroom for the professor to enter; come with me to the laboratory and I will warn you when he is here.’

She and another ‘girl student’ would sit near the large heater in the laboratory until Bakker beckoned them. ‘Then they take their place in the lecture hall, very quietly and shy, and sit in the front row, just seconds before the professor enters.’

4. Paranormal practices

Researching the supernatural 1919

Telepathic abilities

These days, a good way for a researcher to commit career suicide would be to start investigating the paranormal. Nevertheless, some of the most respected scientists from the RUG’s history had a part in founding the Society for Psychical Research on 4 October 1919. Presiding over the association was the godfather of Dutch psychology Gerard Heymans, the philosopher Brugmans was its secretary, and world famous astronomer Jacobus Cornelis Kapteyn was on the board.

Heymans took things like telepathy or predicting the future extremely seriously. He wanted to invest in proper scientific research into these phenomena. This may have been because of his acquaintance with the Groningen maths and physics student, Abraham Sally van Dam. Van Dam alleged having telepathic abilities, and Heymans rushed to get him into his laboratory.

He put the student in a sound-proof, closed-off room and concentrated on one particular square on a chessboard. Van Dam had to then point out which square. Interestingly enough, Van Dam selected the right square more often than chance would predict. The experiment appeared to be watertight. But later researchers pointed out that it was possible that Van Dam had received signals that told him which square to point out.

All-encompassing world view

For Heymans and his followers, however, the results weren’t surprising at all. Heymans had come up with the theory of psychic monism. According to this theory, there is something called a world soul, and the human soul is a temporary compaction of this. ‘In his metaphysical theory, conscious minds were able to flow over into each other’, says Van Berkel.

Heymans’ ideas had an enormous impact. Not just in Groningen, but also far outside it. ‘Heymans was the latest scientist to come up with a truly all-encompassing world view’, says Van Berkel. ‘His reputation was enormous. He personally represented scientific integrity, the world’s conscience. He strived for objectivity. The man was practically a saint.’

We don’t know much about Kapteyn’s world views, but he was good friends with Heymans and Van Berkel thinks he too, was an adherent of psychic monism, just like countless other Groningen scientists.

Cold and unsympathetic

This did not make these men less critical or scientifically rigorous, however. Heymans and his friends felt it was paramount to study paranormal phenomena from an experimental angle. Unfortunately, this did lead to some problems. Van Dam, for instance, lost his special talent after a while. The normal spiritualists in the Society had also started voicing their complaints. They felt the researchers were far too critical.

During a séance taking place at the house of Simon van der Aa, a law professor, the medium Alfred Vout Peters was making no headway. ‘I get a sense of coldness that you are sending my way’, he said. He therefore advised his colleagues to stop coming to Groningen. ‘The atmosphere there is so cold and unsympathetic that you cannot do anything.’

Heymans stepped down as president in 1925. His successor, Leo Polak, only held the post for two years. Over the next few years, the society slowly declined. From then on, Groningen scientists stayed far away from research into the supernatural.

5. Impending doom

The run-up to WWII 1933

Bunker villa with gun range

There was at least one Groningen professor in the thirties who was properly prepared for the upcoming war. As far back as 1936, Heymans’ successor Brugmans, a professor of psychology, had a bunker villa built, calling it Esserkamp.

It may not look it, but the expensive villa at the Hondsruglaan can withstand a bombing attack. The dormer window, for instance, has a concrete sliding hatch, surrounded by steel. The basement is not only fire-proof, but also contains a shooting range. There is even an underground tunnel that leads to the garden.

It’s possible Brugmans was blessed with extraordinary foresight, but Van Berkel has doubts about his mental well-being. ‘When someone spends that much money on an illusion, what does that say about them?’

In spite of the situation with their neighbours to the east, where Hitler had seized power in 1933, and the massive firing of Jews who were already fleeing, the people of Groningen were still living in two worlds, he says. ‘They felt it would all be all right, and that it was an internal, German thing.’

Prominent German immigrants

In fact, the situation in Germany had a positive effect on the people of Groningen. In the thirties, there was a great influx of brilliant German scientists coming to the RUG. ‘The cream of the crop of the scientific world came to Groningen, at no larger cost than the price of a train ticket’, says Van Berkel. ‘They would stay in the professors’ guest rooms.’

In 1933, the famous number theorist Edmund Landau came to Groningen for several months. He taught classes for six months and finished a book, which was also published in Groningen. After Landau, philosopher Helmuth Plessner, physicist Gerhard Rathenau, and mathematician Kurt Mahler came to the RUG for longer or shorter stays. ‘Over the course of 1934-1935, a mass of often quite prominent German nationals came to Groningen to give lectures’, Van Berkel writes. It was a positive development in the university’s push for internationalisation.

But after the Anschluss in 1938, where Germany annexed Austria, the threat became serious. A group of Dutch physicists, including the Groningen Dirk Coster, started raising money to get Lise Meitner, who was doing groundbreaking work on nuclear fission in Berlin, to Groningen.

And even though they didn’t have enough money, they decided to go get her in June of 1938. Without an exit visa, and pretending to be ‘Mrs. Coster’, Meitner was smuggled across the border by the men. Unfortunately, she was unable to get an appointment at the RUG, and she travelled to Sweden.

 

‘It’s time’

Jewish professor Leo Polak had also been talking about the upcoming war for some time. At first he mainly expressed his concerns and tried to support his Jewish colleagues, but now he had started to take precautions. In July of 1939, he sent his large collection of precious books to London, to the English branch of his wife’s family business.

In the meantime, student numbers were slowly declining. Both students and professors were being mobilised. Still, many held out hope that the Netherlands would not have to get involved in the situation. Mobilised medical students were allowed to travel back to Groningen and take their classes in their barracks, dressed in uniform.

On 10 May, Leo Polak wrote the following entry in his diary: ‘It’s time.’ Several days later: ‘Getting poison for all of us. You never know, self-determination to the end.’

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