Guide to the Hertha Sponer Papers, 1917-1967
Hertha Sponer, 1895-1968, was a German physicist who immigrated to the United States and came to Duke University in 1936, where she became the first woman on its Physics Department faculty. She conducted research and taught at Duke until 1965, supervising thirty-five masters and doctoral degree graduates. The Hertha Sponer Papers span the years 1917-1967 and comprise the correspondence, research, speeches, writings, and teaching materials of German physicist Hertha Sponer, who in 1936 became the first woman appointed to the faculty of the Duke University Department of Physics. The collection primarily documents her American career, especially her work in the areas of chemical physics, spectrum analysis, and molecular spectroscopy. Arranged in five series: Correspondence, Printed Materials, Professional Files, Research Files, and Writings and Speeches. The Correspondence Series covers the final two decades of her career, from the late 1940s to 1967, and primarily consists of letters about research with her numerous collaborators and co-authors. Some of her final letters discuss death of her husband, physicist James Franck, in 1964, and also allude to the death that same year of her Duke Physics Department associate and fellow German refugee, Hedwig Kohn. The Printed Materials Series holds offprints and reprints of Sponer's articles from the 1930s-1960s, plus a few articles by Franck. Sponer's teaching and administrative files, including correspondence with graduate students, appear in the Professional Files. The Research Files make up the largest series in the collection; these files document her research on many topics and articles and also contain much of the collection's correspondence. The Writings and Speeches Series gathers several papers and talks from the last half-dozen years of Sponer's professional career.
- Record Group
- Hertha Sponer papers
- Sponer, Hertha
- 6 Linear Feet, 3000 Items
- David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
- Material in English, German
The Hertha Sponer Papers, 1917-1967, comprise the correspondence, research, speeches, writings, and teaching materials of Hertha Sponer, a German physicist who in 1936 became the first woman appointed to the faculty of the Duke University Department of Physics. The collection primarily documents her American career, especially her research and publications in the areas of chemical physics, spectrum analysis, and molecular spectroscopy. It is arranged in five series: Correspondence, Printed Materials, Professional Files, Research Files, and Writings and Speeches. The Correspondence Series covers the final two decades of Sponer's career, from the late 1940s to 1967. Her primary correspondents were various collaborators and co-authors, with whom she generally discussed research and professional concerns rather than personal matters. Several late letters, though, discuss the 1964 death of her husband, physicist James Franck, and briefly allude to the death that same year of her Duke Physics Department associate and fellow German refugee, Hedwig Kohn. The small Printed Materials Series is composed of offprints and reprints of Sponer's articles, spanning her entire professional career in America, but also contains a few 1960s articles by Franck. Sponer's teaching and administrative files, including correspondence with Duke graduate students about their theses, are arranged in the Professional Files; this series also includes information about research grants, conferences, and other professional activities. The Research Files make up the largest series in the collection. These files document Sponer's research on many topics and articles and also contain much of the collection's correspondence. The Research Files also document the only paper she co-wrote with Hedwig Kohn. The collection concludes with a small Writings and Speeches series, which gathers several papers and talks from the last half-dozen years of Sponer's professional career.
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Collection is open for research.
Use & Permissions
Copyright for Official University records is held by Duke University; all other copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.
How to Cite
[Identification of item], Hertha Sponer Papers, Duke University Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Arranged in chronological order. The first folder contains some biographical information on Sponer and her husband, James Franck.
Related Materials: although more of Sponer's letters can be found in the Research Files below, correspondence in the collection is almost entirely confined to the final twenty years of her life. For earlier correspondence about her career in Germany and her departure in the 1930s, see the Related Materials section of this finding aid for relevant collections in other archives (where she may be cited as either Hertha Franck or Hertha Sponer-Franck).
Offprints and reprints of articles by Sponer, spanning some thirty years of her career; a few late articles by James Franck; and articles from the early career of Sponer's friend and older colleague, Lise Meitner, perhaps the only German woman more prominent in physics than Sponer in the 1920s and 1930s. Meitner's folder contains a photostat of her historic January 16, 1939 "Letter to the Editor" from Nature, in which she and Otto Frisch first explained the "new type of nuclear reaction" for which they suggested the name "fission." The final items in the series, a few issues of The Dog News, shed light on the personal life of Sponer, who raised prize-winning Doberman Pinschers during her years in Durham. Also includes textbooks in both German and French.
These materials document part of Sponer's teaching career at Duke University, and include correspondence with her students, information on research grants she was awarded, and a few files about professional conferences she attended. Arranged with Duke materials first, then alphabetically by topic.
The first folder contains examples of student exams and evaluations; official university grade sheets have been discarded, but examples of Sponer's grading techniques have been retained, including calculations and notes to herself that she used in arriving at semester grades. Individual students' files are arranged alphabetically by name; these generally comprise correspondence about and drafts of theses and dissertation chapters.
[Processing Note: Sponer supervised 35 masters and doctoral theses in her career at Duke. A list of these has been placed in this folder, as photocopied from Marie-Ann Maushart, Hertha Sponer: a Woman's Life as a Physicist in the 20th Century : "So You Won't Forget Me." The theses themselves are cataloged individually and held in the Duke University Archives.]
Research notes, correspondence, drafts of papers and speeches, lecture notes, and other materials that cover Sponer's professional career in the United States. Among other materials found here are her collaboration with Hedwig Kohn, discussed in the Collection Overview. The oldest materials in the collection appear at the end of this series--Sponer's handwritten, bound notebooks from lectures she attended as a graduate student at the University of Gottingen, 1918-1920. These document the early teaching and thought of several important faculty at Gottingen, including her thesis advisor, Peter Debye, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1936. Arranged alphabetically, by topic or collaborator.
Two boxes of glass plate negatives that diagram the spectra of various compounds, comprising approximately fifty to sixty Kodak Stereoscopic Plates of varying size. Undated, though probably late-1950s or early-1960s.
[Restrictions Note: FRAGILE originals--HANDLE WITH CARE.]
A small group of articles and speeches from the last years of Sponer's career (note: other writings and speeches can be found in either the Research Files, by topic or collaborator, or in Printed Materials, by year). Also included here is her work translating James Franck's Nobel Prize lecture, originally given in German in 1926; requests for this translation came to her following Franck's death in 1964, when various scientific organizations were preparing memorials to his career.
Hertha Sponer, 1895-1968, was a German physicist who became, in 1926, only the second woman awarded the Habilitation in her field--qualification to teach physics at the university level in Germany. She left Germany in 1934, taught two years in Norway and Spain, and arrived at Duke University in 1936, where she became the first woman appointed to its Physics Department faculty. She conducted research and taught at Duke until 1965, supervising thirty-five masters and doctoral degree graduates.
|1895 Sept. 1||
Born in Neisse, Prussia (today Nysa, Poland)
Transferred from University of Tübingen to University of Göttingen
Awarded Ph.D in physics, adviser Peter Debye
Became assistant to James Franck at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry, Division of Physics, Dahlem (Berlin)
Awarded Venia Legendi and Habilitation (qualification to teach at university level)
Awarded Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to study at the Department of Physics, University of California Berkeley
Charles W. Edwards, Chair of Duke University Physics Department, first contacted by Rockefeller Foundation about Sponer's possible availability
Tentatively accepted offer from Edwards of guest professorship at Duke, but preferred to remain in Europe
Left Germany for Norway, to begin guest professorship at University of Oslo
January, contacted again by Charles Edwards about a position at Duke; May, accepted "trial half-year," to begin Feb. 1, 1936
Published "Molekülspektren I"(Molecular Spectra and Their Application to Chemical Problems Vol. I and II)
Appointed to Duke University faculty as Professor of Physics
Joined with Lise Meitner and other scientists in letter-writing campaign to assist Jewish physicist Hedwig Kohn in emigrating from Germany
Served as Associate Editor of The Journal of Chemical Physics
|1946 June 29||
Married James Franck, Chicago
Spectroscopy laboratory moved to new Physics Building, Duke University
Arranged Duke Physics research associateship for Hedwig Kohn, following Kohn's retirement from Wellesley
Awarded Guggenheim Fellowship to fund guest professorship at Uppsala University, Sweden
Research and lecture trip to Japan and India
|1964 May 21||
James Franck died in Göttingen
|1965 Sept. 1||
Retired from Duke University
Named Professor Emeritus in Physics
Moved to Celle, Germany, to be near her sister and nephew
|1968 Feb. 17||
Died in Ilten, near Hannover
- Maushart, Marie-Ann, Hertha Sponer: a Woman's Life as a Physicist in the 20th Century : "So You Won't Forget Me", English translation, 2011 (University Archives, Duke University.)
- Horst Meyer Papers, 2003-2012 (University Archives, Duke University.)
- James Franck Papers, 1882-1966 (Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)
- Papers of Lise Meitner, 1862-1979 (Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge University)
- Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars Records, 1933-1945. (New York Public Library)
- Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, circa 1870-1999 (Niels Bohr Library & Archives, Center for History of Physics)
- Interview with Dr. James Franck and Hertha Sponer Franck, 1962 July 9-14 (Niels Bohr Library & Archives, Center for History of Physics)
Click to find related materials at Duke University Libraries.
- Duke University. Department of Physics. Faculty
- Duke University. Department of Physics
- Franck, James, 1882-1964
- Kohn, Hedwig
- Sponer, Hertha
- Sponer, Hertha
The Hertha Sponer Papers were received by the University Archives as a transfer from the American Heritage Center in 2013. Formerly cited as AHC Collection Number 6621.
Processed by Michael Shumate, Julia Eads, April 2013
Encoded by Michael Shumate, April 2013
Accessions UA 2013-0009 and 2013-0010 are described in this finding aid.