Traces of Gerhard Herzberg in Ottawa

  • Herzberg Road © Goethe-Institut Montreal
    Herzberg Road
  • Herzberg Road © Goethe-Institut Montreal
    Herzberg Road

Traces of Gerhard Herzberg in Ottawa

On March 15th, 2010, the Technical University of Darmstadt (Technische Universität Darmstadt) laid six commemorative paving stones in memory of scientists who had been expelled from the university between 1933 and 1935, among them the physicist Gerhard Herzberg and his wife Luise. In 1935, Gerhard Herzberg’s teaching licence was revoked because of his marriage to a Jewish woman. His wife Luise Oettinger, who had a PhD in physics, had already been forbidden to work as early as 1933.

With the help of John Spinks, a former Canadian colleague, Gerhard Herzberg emigrated to Canada with his wife in 1935. He was a physics professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon until 1945, and the couple’s two children Agnes and Paul were born in Canada. After a three-year stay in Chicago, where Gerhard Herzberg was a professor of spectroscopy at the Yerkes Observatory, he moved to Ottawa with his family.

From 1948, he conducted research at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa, which became a top research centre for academics from around the world thanks to him. In 1975, the astronomy and spectroscopy departments were combined to become the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, named in his honour. In addition, he was the dean of Carleton University from 1973 to 1980, and the university’s physics building - Herzberg Laboratories - carries his name. Herzberg was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1971 for his work on the electronic structure of molecules, and in 1987, an asteroid (3316) was named after him. The highest Canadian prize for research, which comes with an endowment of $1 million, was renamed the “Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering” in 2000.

When the Herzberg family moved to Ottawa in 1948, the city’s cultural offerings were still very limited. Concerts were held in the auditorium of Glebe Collegiate Institute, a high school, as there were no concert halls. The Herzbergs, who loved music, attended most of these Monday evening concerts. Gerhard Herzberg himself played violin, and he enjoyed performing Schubert songs in his warm baritone voice while his wife accompanied him on the piano. He would often give a demonstration of his abilities at the end of radio or television interviews.

Throughout his life, Gerhard Herzberg was a workaholic, and he would work daily from 8 AM to 7 PM. His wife, on the other hand, would take care of the children and the household. Once the children were old enough and after the death of Luise’s parents, who lived with the family from 1939, she started working again. The famous saying “Behind every great man is a great woman” seems to have been very relevant for Gerhard and Luise Herzberg. When Luise died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1971, her loss hit Gerhard Herzberg hard. She had worked in the Radio Physics Laboratory in Shirley Bay for the last 12 years of her life, and not far from Luise’s final workplace there is also a street named after her husband: Herzberg Road.

 Website, Carleton University
 Website, National Research Council