That story has now been shared by Barbara Backus-Zernike, the widow of Frits Zernike Jr. (who died in 2011), with the UK and Dutch public broadcaster NOS. The original Nobel medal is secure in a safe in the United States, near her home in Essex, Connecticut.
Frederik Zernike (who was better known as Frits) received the Noble Prize 63 years ago for the discovery of the phase contrast microscope, which enabled scientists to study living cells for the first time. Until this year, he was the only Nobel Prize winner in the history of the university. After Zernike’s death in 1966, the medal was passed on to his family.
On the 100th anniversary of Zernike’s birth, his son, Frits Jr., and his daughter, Woutera, declared their intention to donate the laurel to the University Museum in Groningen. Two years later, Woutera, who was living in England at the time, boarded a ship to the Netherlands to deliver the medal in person.
‘She packed up the medal very carefully and went to deliver it in person’, says Barbara Backus-Zernike, 26 years on from that trip. ‘After the ferry arrived in the Netherlands, she realised that the medal had disappeared. In a letter to my husband, my sister-in-law wrote that she was afraid that hooligans on board had something to do with it.’
Years passed without a trace of the missing medal. Then, while her sister-in-law was packing a suitcase one evening, she discovered it hidden in the lining of her suitcase. She in turn gave it to Frits Zernike Jr. ‘I don’t know when exactly he brought it to our home in Essex, I think it must have been some point after 1996’, Barbara says. ‘I can still remember him saying: “I’m just going to put it here in a drawer.”’
The missing medal remained in that desk drawer until Frits Zernike Jr. passed away in 2011. ‘After his death, I took the medal to a safe. I don’t think that sort of thing should just be hanging around the house’, Barbara says. She felt that it was inappropriate to keep it on display. ‘What I do have out are photos of my father-in-law receiving the prize. My favourite photos is of him seated next to the queen of Sweden, telling her something that clearly amused her because she is laughing quite hard.’
As far as can be determined, the university was never informed that the original medal had been recovered. ‘That wasn’t done intentionally’, Barbara says. ‘I think that it was just a lack of communication. We knew where it was, we knew that the university wasn’t really interested anymore because they already had a replica. That’s why we didn’t tell them.’
By then, the university had already contacted the Nobel institute in Stockholm and received a replica. ‘That one wasn’t gold, but rather gold plated. But I’ve seen them both, and I can tell you that you really can’t tell the difference.’
Franck Smit, former curator of the University Museum, also had no idea that the medal had been found. ‘It was supposedly stolen from her bag. That’s what Mrs. Rueb-Zernike herself believed’, Smit says. ‘We never drew much attention to it out of respect for her privacy.’
Zernike’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren can decide whether to give the medal to the University Museum after all. ‘It’s up to the family to decide if they want to do that’, Waling Huisman says. ‘I hope that the university will convey how much it would mean to us to have the medal in Groningen again.’
RUG spokesperson Gernant Deekens cannot say at this time what the university intends to do. ‘It’s too soon to tell. We don’t formally have any claim to the medal because it belongs to the family, but it’s a beautiful story, all the same.’ Deekens also states that as far as he is aware, the recovery of the medal was never reported to the university.
Photos courtesy of NOS