The Doric Column
December 30, 1999
A few weeks ago, I visited the school where Albert Einstein got his first steady job. He was an Aushilfslehrer, an assistant lecturer. He did not succeed in securing a permanent position, though he tried hard. To put a finer point on it, Time magazine's "Person of the Century" was privy to the personal rejection letter early in his career.
But that is no fault of the academic institution. As a rule, institutions are not equipped to read the Einsteins of the world, at least not in their embryonic stage. The year was 1901, and as a self-described "late developer" Einstein had yet to show that he had the "right stuff" to be Herr Professor Dr. Einstein. The school where he taught was the Technikum Winterthur, a large and reputable engineering school. Winterthur, Switzerland's sixth largest city, is a manufacturing and trade center near Zürich.
Indeed, the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule or ETH Zürich, failed Einstein when he first applied for entry in 1895. He reapplied after studying at a school in the Canton of Aarau and was accepted, graduating in 1900. But he was an "undistinguished student" by all accounts, and for all we know was probably an undistinguished assistant lecturer at the Technikum Winterthur. No surprise. The "patron saint of distracted schoolkids," in the words of Time's Walter Isaacson, could hardly be expected to impress prospective employers.
The job of Aushilfslehrer at the Technikum was one of several "occasional jobs on the periphery of the academic world" Einstein held until landing a civil service position at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern in 1902. That's when, to borrow from the idiom of the Internet, Einstein engaged in some heavy duty clicking, beginning with the publication of "Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper," the "Special Theory of Relativity," and two other papers in the Annalen der Physik in 1905.
I was in Switzerland to explore possibilities for collaboration in biomedical technology, which, together with its governor, Minnesota is known for in these parts. Winterthur's collaborative and promotional efforts are being led by the Winterthur Consortium, a group of business and academic leaders that wants to develop the region's high-tech industries.
The evening of my arrival I visited with Hans Peter Haeberli, prorector of the Zürcher Hochschule Winterthur (ZHW) or University of Applied Sciences in Winterthur. The occasion was a reception for new faculty, and the place was a well-preserved historic building in the heart of Winterthur, a city festively decorated for the holiday season in keeping with its rich cultural heritage. In its heyday, around the time Einstein was teaching at the Technikum, the building was a mercantile exchange center for Winterthur's thriving trade in machinery, textiles and other manufactured goods.
Haeberli, working in academic affairs administration, is leading the effort to combine three schools into the new ZHW: the Technikum, the Zürich School of Economics and Business Administration, and the Zürich School of Language and Interpreting.
Last year, the Swiss federal government created the Universities of Applied Sciences ("Fachhochschulen" or "Hautes Écoles Spécialisées"), a new type of specialised university. In addition to the vocational baccalaureate, which was introduced in the early 1990s, these universities establish a new educational pathway that integrates applied research and technology transfer, theoretical training, work experience and graduate education, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Their establishment is designed "to diversify the Swiss system of higher education" and facilitate the transfer of technology to the private sector.
As my German is both dated and of the high or "Hochdeutsch" variety and thus limited in its usefulness among Swiss-German speakers, my conversation with Haeberli (and with everyone else) was in English. He speaks excellent English. Undoubtedly he studied English in school growing up, like most Swiss children. Later he honed it at the University of California in Davis.
Haeberli described the challenges in trying to carry out the charge of the Swiss Confederation to integrate the schools into a successful, fully functioning institution of higher education. The challenges are many, and the resources limited. But progress is being made.
This year, the Technikum celebrated its 125th anniversary. It was founded in Winterthur in 1874 by a fellow named Friedrich Autenheimer, like Einstein an immigrant from Germany. Autenheimer, an educator and later a steam power plant inspector, saw the opportunity to educate and develop future engineers in a country that was just undergoing industrialization.
As president of a Swiss professional society of engineering educators, Haeberli is plenty familiar with the challenges of post-industrial engineering education and what needs to happen for Swiss students to be prepared for the information age. The Technikum Winterthur was the first Swiss engineering school to build a computer center.
Haeberli authored a paper on the history of the Technikum, now part of the ZHW. Like the ETH Zürich and the University of Zürich, he notes the school's association with Albert Einstein.
"Immediately after graduating from the ETH Zürich in 1901, the physicist Albert Einstein came to the school as an assistant lecturer in electrical engineering," he writes. "Some years later, he tried to secure a fixed contract as a lecturer in mathematics and physics. However, in 1908 he was appointed to a position at the University of Zürich."
At the University of Zürich Einstein taught theoretical physics and nurtured his ideas on quantum theory. He is part of a pantheon of 20th century Nobel laureates associated with that institution, a list that includes physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, historian Theodor Mommsen, physicist Erwin Schrödinger, chemist Paul Karrer, physiologist Rudolf Walter Hess, physicist Karl Müller, and biochemists Richard Ernst and Rolf Zinkernagel.
Must be something in the water.
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On July 7, 1935, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann stood together at Harvard University to receive the school's honorary Doctor of Letters award.
By this time, both were Nobel laureates, Einstein in 1921 for physics and Mann in 1929 for literature. Both received their early education in Munich; both fled Germany for Switzerland. Both had ties to the ETH Zürich, which today houses the Thomas Mann Archives. Both fled to the United States to escape the Nazis: Einstein in 1933 and Mann in 1938. Later, they were neighbors in Princeton, New Jersey.
When Mann fled Germany for Zürich, he had already made the alpine sanatorium of Davos the basis for the fictional Berghof sanatorium in The Magic Mountain, published in 1924. He got to know the place when his wife spent six months there in 1912 seeking the salubrious effects of high altitude for a lung condition.
Today, Davos, several hours drive southeast of Zürich, is a world-famous ski resort, international conference center for the likes of the World Economic Forum and the World Health Organization, and watering hole for venture capitalists with an eye out for the "new new thing," as the high-tech billionaire Jim Clark might put it. It is worlds away from The Magic Mountain's combined hospital and health farm for patients with tuberculosis.
The book is about a heroic quest for knowledge -- in the tradition of the search for the Holy Grail, but in the oppressive atmosphere of an institution which was commonplace in its day, the tuberculosis sanatorium.
Hans Castorp, the protagonist, goes to the elegant sanatorium in Davos to visit his cousin. Intending to stay for no more than a brief vacation following his engineering exams, he is diagnosed as having tuberculosis and ends up staying there for seven years.
Mann's three weeks' stay at Davos were enough to convince him of "the dangers of such a milieu for young people -- and tuberculosis is a disease of the young," Mann wrote of his novel in The Atlantic Monthly in 1953. "You will have got from my book an idea of the narrowness of this charmed circle of isolation and invalidism. It is a sort of substitute existence, and it can, in a relatively short time, wholly wean a young person from actual and active life. Everything there, including the conception of time, is thought of on a luxurious scale.
"The cure is always a matter of several months, often of several years. But after the first six months the young person has not a single idea left save flirtation and the thermometer under his tongue. After the second six months in many cases he has even lost the capacity of any other ideas. He will become completely incapable of life in the flatland."
Mann observed that such institutions as the Berghof "were a typical pre-war phenomenon. They were only possible in a capitalistic economy that was still functioning well and normally. Only under such a system was it possible for patients to remain there year after year at the family's expense.
"The Magic Mountain became a swan song of that form of existence. Perhaps it is a general rule that epics descriptive of some particular phase of life tend to appear as it nears its end. The treatment of tuberculosis has entered upon a different phase today; and most of the Swiss sanatoria have become sports hotels."
Davos got its start as a health refuge through the observations and ministrations of a political refugee from the 1848 uprising in Germany.
Alexander Spengler studied medicine in Zürich after his escape and then took a position as the local doctor in the tiny mountain village of Davos. Quickly he observed that tuberculosis was not apparent in the village even when it was raging in "the lowlands." When villagers contracted it from traveling there, they rapidly recovered upon their return. He deduced that the alpine climate of Davos held recuperative powers.
Spengler led the way in making Davos "the best-known lung convalescence location in the world" until effective drugs against tuberculosis began to appear in the 1950s. Today, his legacy is represented in establishments like the Alexanderhaus Clinic for dermatological and allergenic disorders.
What put the Swiss tuberculosis sanatorium out of commission once and for all -- and what represented the greatest assault on the nation's No. 1 killer at the turn of the last century -- was the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin in soil samples by Selman Waksman and Albert Schatz at Rutgers Agricultural College in New Jersey in 1943.
What is not generally known is that the first tuberculosis patients to be successfully treated with streptomycin were from hospitals and sanatoria in the Rochester, Minnesota region. One of the first was a 21-year-old woman named Patricia, from nearby Austin. She was a resident of the Mineral Springs Sanatorium in Cannon Falls before being treated at the Mayo Clinic beginning in November 1944. She made a complete recovery, something unheard of in those times.
William Feldman, a veterinary biologist who specialized in animal tuberculosis, grew up in western Colorado. His mother would take in people with TB, putting them in an open-air bed on the front porch. According to author Frank Ryan in The Forgotten Plague [Little, Brown & Co., 1992], the story goes that Feldman's reputation for animal research found its way to amateur farmer Charles Mayo, co-founder of the Mayo Clinic. Mayo was having trouble with TB among his chickens and sought Feldman's advice.
The connection with Mayo was made historic one frigid winter evening in 1938 when Feldman accompanied H. Corwin Hinshaw to Rochester following a tuberculosis meeting of the State Medical Association in St. Paul. At the time, TB was a scourge in Minnesota, especially in the state's mental institutions. Hinshaw, an expert in pulmonary diseases, was leading the Mayo Clinic's tuberculosis clinical research program.
It was one of those serendipitous convergences that seem to happen a lot in science. Five years after they met, in a daze after curing four guinea pigs of their tuberculosis, Feldman and Hinshaw celebrated. Ryan described the scene:
"Sitting out of the late June sun in the shade of an apple tree in the back garden, they talked and talked into the afternoon. Bill Feldman had brought a bottle of his home-made gin, concocted from 200 per cent proof laboratory alcohol, to celebrate with. Five years after that freezing journey from St. Paul, in this wonderful moment of effervescent excitement, they sat back in two little canvas garden chairs, bathed in the dappled shade of the apple tree, and drank a toast to success and the new wonder drug -- to streptomycin!"
"Streptomycin in treatment of clinical tuberculosis: a preliminary report," by Feldman and Hinshaw appeared in the Sept. 5, 1945 issue of the biweekly Proceedings of Staff Meetings of the Mayo Clinic. It was the first report of results of streptomycin treatment in patients with tuberculosis.
Though many hurdles remained, treatment for tuberculosis would be revolutionized. One of the hurdles, articulated by Feldman and Hinshaw, was addressing the "factor of control" in carrying out clinical trials. In implementing its streptomycin program, Britain's Medical Research Council established landmark methodology for how controlled therapeutic trials should be conducted.
In Minnesota, cases resulting in death dropped from 816 in 1938 to 257 in 1951, representing a 70 percent reduction per 100,000 population. J. Arthur Myers' two-volume account of "The Role of Minnesota Physicians and Veterinarians in the Downfall of Tuberculosis"  is a sobering reminder of the human and material resources that went into fighting and controlling "The People's Plague." [Florentine Films, 1995] Indeed, TB took the life of the mother of Owen Wangensteen, the legendary chief of surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Losing her at the age of seven, "he left no stone unturned to support and promote anti-tuberculosis work."
Ryan wrote in his book that no one in the medical community could have been more pleased with the successful use of streptomycin in treating human tuberculosis than Wilhelm Löffler, director of the medical clinic at the University of Zürich and the Canton Zürich hospital. Since the discovery of the tubercule baccilus in 1882 by the great German bacteriologist Robert Koch, perhaps no one had devoted more time to treating patients and searching for a cure than Löffler, a quest made more poignant when he lost his wife to the disease. His reputation as a clinician was such that Thomas Mann himself sought treatment from Löffler toward the end of his life. [Thomas Sprecher, Thomas Mann in Zürich, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1992]
"I am certainly receiving that [great care] here, having been taken in charge by the well-known specialist in internal medicine, Wilhelm Löffler," Mann wrote to an Italian friend. "I do not have any pain worth mentioning.... I should scarcely get away in less than four weeks, of which only one has passed. Pazienza! What I have entered into is Magic Mountain time."
Despite a resurgence of TB in this decade, the teams of Waksman and Schatz at Rutgers and Feldman and Hinshaw at Mayo, working in the tradition of Koch in the laboratory and Löffler in the clinic, put the disease on the defensive for the first time. They succeeded in doing for countless people unlucky enough to contract the disease what no amount of fresh air ever could -- the fresh air of Davos or the fresh air of a front porch in Colorado.
Or the fresh air of a well-windowed guest house on southern Minnesota farm. That was where my father's older brother, Ronald, grandson of a woman whose family fled the 1848 turmoil in Germany, spent the last months of his 20 years of life.
Zürich has a long running experience with networks. It began with its local prehistoric people, the "lake dwellers," and ran through the Roman conquest two millennia ago, the Reformation and the "Age of Discovery," the network of railroads [eg. the "Gotthardbahn"], horse-drawn trams, and telephones built in the late 19th century, and right down to the present moment of virtual communities and e-commerce.
The lake-dweller culture of Lake Zürich dates from 4000 BC according to some studies. The lake-dwellers built their homes at the edge of the forests. "Communication by a rich network of rivers and lakes permitted the transport of men and materials," wrote James M. Luck in his History of Switzerland [Sposs, Inc., Palo Alto, 1985]. "We may assume that trade and commerce--the exchange of food products and of the implements and other items resulting from early handicrafts then had their beginning."
The Helvetii, a Celtic tribe, left southern Germany for the central plateau of Switzerland sometime during the 1st century BC. They moved westward until they encountered Julius Caesar's army in 58 BC. In the Gallic Wars Caesar wrote:
"[The] Helvetii, are confined on every side by the nature of their situation; on one side by the Rhine, a very broad and deep river, which separates the Helvetian territory from the Germans; on a second side by the Jura, a very high mountain, which is [situated] between the Sequani and the Helvetii; on a third by the Lake of Geneva, and by the river Rhone, which separates our Province from the Helvetii. From these circumstances it resulted, that they could range less widely, and could less easily make war upon their neighbors; for which reason men fond of war [as they were] were affected with great regret. They thought, that considering the extent of their population, and their renown for warfare and bravery, they had but narrow limits, although they extended in length 240, and in breadth 180 [Roman] miles."
Caesar pushed the Helvetii back in the first of the Gallic Wars and occupied what is now Zürich [named "Turicum" by the Romans] and Winterthur ["Vitudurum" ]. Over time, the Helvetii were assimilated into Roman civilization.
Besides building their trademark roads [see viadomitia.org], the Romans built settlements and outposts which are still being discovered and excavated today ("Grossbauern in römischer Zeit," Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Dec. 10, 1999).
Zürich is the economic capital of Switzerland as well as its largest city. I joined a group that was taken on a tour of the city; a city divided by the Limmat River that flows out of Zürichsee, Lake Zürich; a city shaped early on by the Reformation leader Huldrych Zwingli and, in the 19th century, by liberal politics and progressive educational reforms that made it the envy of European educators.
Today the city is a symbol for the forces of economic capitalism embodied in the private banks that line Bahnhofstrasse. It may be what a promotional brochure calls the "global financial hub of Europe, where investment organisations and banks, such as Credit Suisse, UBS, and Winterthur and Swiss RE, are cornerstones of the economy," but the city's business, political, and educational leaders know that bigtime change is afoot. Nothing can be taken for granted.
Yet Zürich has always looked to the future. In the book Geneva Zürich Basel [Princeton University Press, 1994], Gordon Craig wrote that "Promethean Zürich developed an openness to the scientific and artistic venturesomeness of a future oriented European metropolis."
And so it is today. The Zürich Network [renamed the Greater Zurich Area in 2002], a new economic development organization located along the Limmat Quai, has its sights set on fostering the growth of so-called knowledge industries in partnership with the Winterthur Consortium. These are industries that require a lot of research and development up front and that typically demand more brains than brawn and scarce natural resources, industries like medical technology and biotechnology, telecommunications, and robotics.
It is not really a stretch to say that knowledge industries owe their existence to fundamental advances in the understanding of the physical and natural worlds that have occurred during the century about to pass.
Nor is it an exaggeration to say that the science-based industries of the 21st century will be built on a foundation established by a distracted student educated in Zürich a century ago.
--William Hoffman firstname.lastname@example.org
Albert Einstein the way he looked when he was a professor of theorectical physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, 1912 - 1914. The Zürich region supplied scientific education and early academic employment for Time magazine's Person of the Century. Today the Greater Zürich region is fostering the growth of science-based industries made possible by the foundation he laid. Copyright © The Albert Einstein Archives, The Jewish National & University Library