Gertrude Woker

Gertrud Woker (1878-1968): Visionary chemist, women's rights activist and pacifist

The Swiss chemist Gertrud Woker initially made a Career for herself at the University of Bern with her work on catalysis and the toxicity of leaded petrol. But as a woman, she did not have an easy time in science, especially as she vehemently advocated ethical principles in science, equality and world peace.

Gertrud Woker was born on December 16, 1878 in Bern into a family of scholars. Her father Philipp Woker (1847-1924), who came from Brilon in eastern Sauerland, was a historian and professor of canon law. Education and knowledge were of great importance in the Woker family and so Gertrud Woker was an extremely talented and hardworking, but sometimes stubborn student. She completed her schooling with top marks in all subjects. Hoping that she would choose a medical career, her father sent her to Erfurt to live with an uncle who worked as chief physician after she finished school.

But Woker didn't want to be a doctor, but a scientist. With a lot of commitment and tenacity, she asserted herself and began studying chemistry at the University of Bern in 1900. She graduated in 1903 at the age of 25 with a doctorate in organic chemistry. Her doctoral thesis was graded summa cum laude and the Neues Wiener Tagblatt reported on January 17, 1904: "Within a few years, a young Swiss woman, Miss Gertrud Woker, passed the following exams at the University of Bern: and high school teacher exams.?

After studying in Berlin, during which she turned to physical chemistry, Woker received the license to teach at the University of Bern in 1907. She was the first private lecturer in chemistry at a German-speaking university. In her inaugural lecture on catalysis, she explained her future research area, which was to develop into an important scientific field at the interface between chemistry and biology. There is a report from June 16, 1907 in the weekly newspaper Wiener Hausfrau about this phase of life: ?The University of Bern had its second female lecturer at the beginning of the summer semester. [?] The new, still very young private lecturer Miss Gertrud Woker finished her chemical studies in Bern several years ago and will now start her new Career with the inaugural lecture on the topic 'Problems of catalytic research'.? From 1911 Woker headed the Institute for physical-chemical biology in Bern. She turned down a call to Leipzig that same year.

Woker always kept an eye on the practical use of her findings. As early as 1917 she pointed out the toxicity of leaded petrol. She called for unleaded fuel and published the first proposals for the production of lead-free motor gasoline, which received a great deal of attention. Despite her scientific successes, she did not have an easy time as a woman. It was only in 1933, after foreign researchers had campaigned vehemently for her, that she was promoted to associate professor at the age of 55.

Woker is regarded as a pioneer in the future-oriented border area between chemistry, physics, pharmacy and biology. Her textbook The Chemistry of Natural Alkaloids, published in 1953, was widely recognized. She also published a book on the role of catalysis in analytical chemistry. It should be mentioned that her earlier books on women's employment and the devastating use of poison gases in military conflicts were burned at the stake by the Berlin National Socialist student body.

Since the First World War, Woker has campaigned vehemently for the observance of ethical principles in science, for world peace and for women's rights. Like Clara Immerecht (1870-1915), the wife of Fritz Haber (1868-1934), the later Nobel Prize winner and proponent of gas warfare, she was involved in the fight against chemical weapons, which she described as a "perversion of science".

Woker witnessed the use of poison gas in World War I, the atomic bombs dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and the fatal effects of chemical weapons during the Vietnam War. From 1915 she found fellow pacifists in the International Women's League for Peace and Freedom, whose Swiss branch she helped build.

As a pacifist, Woker was branded a traitor and a communist in both Switzerland and Germany. She denied ever having argued "against the need for national defense for Switzerland" and insisted that she "always opposed the poison gas war". She spoke out for national defense and was certainly not a communist but firmly believed in the Old Catholic Church. Nevertheless, she had to experience numerous slanders and contempt. In the end, she sacrificed her scientific Career for the sake of world peace ? the ?big picture?, as she put it. She was diagnosed with a mental illness and her own family referred to her as "crazy Aunt Trudi". Her anti-war commitment also earned Woker the nickname "Gas-Trudi". Her closest colleagues had worn her down until she suffered from paranoia. At the age of 88 she was admitted to a mental institution. There, in Marin in the canton of Neuchâtel, Gertrud Woker died on September 13, 1968 at the age of 90.

Only years after her death did the University of Bern set up an independent institute for biochemistry. Streets in Bern and other cities today bear the name of Getrud Woker.



  • Franziska Rogger: The doctoral hat in the broom closet: The adventurous life of the first female students - using the example of the University of Bern, Bern, 1999, pp. 178-198.
  • Gerit von Leitner: Do we want to wash our hands of our innocence? Gertrud Woker (1878-1968), Chemist & International Women's League 1915-1968. Weidler Verlag, Berlin, 1998

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The texts published in this series do not claim to be scientific publications. Authors and other people involved are not experts in the history of science. The purpose of the series is to introduce the mostly unknown women chemists and to remind you of the well-known women chemists. We encourage readers who want to know more to study academic Literature on the women featured. In some cases there are detailed chemical-historical works.

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Currently: a film about Gertrud Woker can be seen in the 3sat media center until October 1st, 2022: -heroine-100.html

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Unknown author, Woker Gertrud ca 1911 , public domain

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last modified: 05.09.2022 14:59 H from N/A