Historical aspects

The name DGGTB (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Theorie der Biologie; German Society for the History and Theory of Biology) reflects recent history as well as German tradition. The Society is a relatively late addition to a series of German societies of science and medicine that began with the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften”, founded in 1910 by Leipzig University’s Karl Sudhoff (1853 – 1938), who wrote: “We want to establish a ‘German’ society in order to gather German-speaking historians together in our special disciplines so that they form the core of an international society…”. Yet Sudhoff was “quite willing” to accommodate the wishes of a number of founding members and “drop the word German in the title of the Society and have it merge with an international society”. The founding and naming of the Society at that time derived from a specific set of historical circumstances, and the same was true some 80 years later when in 1991, in the wake of German reunification the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Theorie der Biologie” was founded.

In spite of the division of Germany into East and West, following World War II, German historians of biology were able to meet during the annual gatherings of the “German Society for the History of Medicine, Science and Technology” (“Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Medizin, Naturwissenschaften und Technik”) which was re-established in 1948 in West Germany. Participation by Eastern colleagues ended, however, when in 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected. From that time on, historians of science and medicine in the two German states by and large went their separate ways. In the GDR those interested in the history of biology initially met within the framework of history of medicine societies and colloquia.

In the West, by the mid-1970s, Marburg University’s Armin Geus formed the “Study Group History of Biology” (“Arbeitskreis Biologie-Geschichte”), which followed on from Heidelberg University’s “Colloquium on special Questions in the History of Biology” (“Kolloquium zu speziellen Fragen der Biologie-Geschichte”), originally organized by Hans Querner. Meetings were held with, on average, some 20 participants from across West Germany, initially in Heidelberg, subsequently in Marburg and, at the invitation of Gunter Mann, in Mainz. Also Bochum and Göttingen were selected as meeting places. Thanks to Mann, a historian of medicine, the history of biology received much ncouragement and stimulation. An essential step on the way to the establishment of the history of iology as a separate subject was a workshop History of biology” held at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel in October 1980.

Whereas in West Germany historians of biology had from around 1975 an organisational structure for discussing their discipline, in East Germany an attempt to establish a similar organisation was not successful. In the late 1960s a proposal to establish a working group for the history of biology within the “Biological Society of the GDR” (“Biologische Gesellschaft in der DDR”) was rejected for lack of interest among the biologists; likewise an initiative to establish a “Museum for the History of Biology” was not realized. At long last, in 1985, the President of the Biological Society, Lothar Kämpfe of Greifswald University, took up the proposal to establish a working group for “Theory and History”. This was supported by the executive committee mainly because of the prospect that such a group would provide a forum for interdisciplinary theoretical discussions. Because of the large number of interested people, a separate section within the Biological Society was established in early 1986, which soon had more than 100 members. This section held two meetings per year, one with theoretical topics, the other with historical. Already during the Annual Meeting of 1987 the section participated with contributions on the history of biology. At this Meeting the Caspar Friedrich Wolff Medal was awarded for the first time, and Jena University’s Georg Uschmann – an expert on Wolff’s embryological works – was to have presented the ceremonial address, but he died on 23 September 1986. Ilse Jahn took over and continued to represent history of biology on the executive committee of the Biological Society. As from 1982 on she was allowed to travel to the West and participated in a number of conferences there. Thus a connection – initially rather losse – between the Eastern and Western working groups was established. This led in 1991 to the foundation of the united German society (DGGTB). The founding meeting took place in Jena and attracted international attention. In attendance were 60 people and 145 registered as members, from the Netherlands, France, Liechtenstein, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and the USA.