"We would do so with joy" [Gerhard Herzberg]

Submitted by aec059 on Wed, 12/07/2022 - 09:15
Head and shoulders photo of Gerhard Herzberg

On Campus News, 29 March 1996

Despite the hard times of the Depression, the U of S created an opening for a German scholar -- who eventually earned the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

J.W.T. Spinks said he often pinched himself, "to reassure myself that I had been so lucky." The source of his good fortune: Dr. Gerhard Herzberg, who agreed to let Spinks spend 1933-1934 in his laboratory in Darmstadt, Germany. For Spinks, the situation "was just about ideal"--noting, with some understatement, that "Herzberg did very nice experimental work in spectroscopy."

But the situation in Germany for Herzberg was becoming increasingly untenable: his wife, Louise, was Jewish. This was, as Walter Murray noted--with considerable understatement--a "misfortune, according to Hitler's standards." Efforts were begun to find Herzberg a position outside of Germany.

Murray wrote his colleagues in Toronto and at the National Research Council in Ottawa to see if they had openings. "Should neither of you feel inclined to invite him to come," Murray stated, "we would do so with joy." It was, as Spinks later noted, an interesting claim, given that "Murray knew that the bulk of the university assets in 1935 consisted of a bunch of I.O.U.'s in his safe!"

Neither Toronto nor the NRC could take Herzberg. Murray approached the Carnegie Corporation for funding. Although "no public announcement has yet been made," it was believed that Carnegie Corporation was providing fellowships for "German scholars in distress"--a notion the American-based Corporation was quick to downplay: "there has been a slight misunderstanding regarding the Corporation's interest in displaced German scholars." They had no "formal system of fellowships," but would give consideration to providing a grant "if you are convinced that a certain German scholar will fill a gap on the staff." Murray obtained a grant of $4,500.00--two years' salary.

The next hurdle was with immigration, who felt Herzberg "would not come within the classes ordinarily admissible to Canada," but were persuaded that the arrangement was, indeed, temporary.

The Shortt Library of Canadiana and the University museum were both removed from their homes in the Physics building, creating a "Light and special experiments laboratory" and an office for Herzberg. Of more concern to Murray must have been the estimates for equipment costs for Herzberg's research, expected to reach $3,000.00.

Gerhard Herzberg stayed at the University of Saskatchewan for 10 years and went on to receive numerous awards for his research, including the Nobel Prize in 1971.

Immigration was curious, however, back in 1937, when it appeared Herzberg's position had been made permanent. Times were hard and there was considerable unemployment: shouldn't they hire a Canadian? Murray thought they raised an interesting question. "Does that imply that a Canadian University cannot appoint to its staff any person, no matter how distinguished, who would in any way displace a Canadian resident?" he wrote. "If so, I fear it may prove fatal to higher education."

Cheryl Avery

Photograph: Archives photo A-3234