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A Brief History of the Institute for the History of Medicine at the Charité Berlin

The Institute for the History of Medicine was founded in 1930 as a central state institute. The first director was the medical historian Paul Diepgen. The institute is one of the oldest institutions of medical history research.

Text: Florian Bruns (2014, updated 2022), Collaboration: Udo Schagen.

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Since the founding of the Berlin University in 1810, courses on the history of medicine have been offered at the Medical Faculty. At the suggestion of Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, Justus Friedrich Hecker, who had already been an associate professor of the history of medicine since 1822, was appointed to the newly created chair of "History of Medicine and the Encyklopedia and Methodology of the Medical Sciences" in 1834. In total, no fewer than 26 professors and lecturers were involved in teaching medical history in the 19th century.

Between 1894 and 1930 the chair remained vacant. During this time, interested physicians and scientists tried to maintain the teaching alongside their medical-practical activities. One of them was Julius Leopold Pagel, a physician for the poor in Berlin, who held a non-tenured extraordinariate position for several years.

In the course of a sometimes rather one-sided orientation of medicine towards the methods of natural science - Werner von Siemens had proclaimed the "scientific age" at the Assembly of German Naturalists and Physicians in 1886 - historical and philosophical aspects of medicine receded into the background towards the end of the 19th century. But already at the beginning of the 20th century, a certain countermovement began, from which medical historiography also benefited. In 1906 in Leipzig and in 1914 in Vienna, institutes of medical history were founded, which subsequently had an astonishingly broad impact with worldwide influence. In Germany, the director of the Leipzig institute, Karl Sudhoff, in particular, influenced the further personnel and institutional development of the subject by training students and promoting his field of work in appropriate places.

Foundation of the Berlin Institute for the History of Medicine and the Natural Sciences

In the 1920s, the Prussian Ministry of Culture, headed by the Orientalist Carl Heinrich Becker, increasingly felt the lack of a comparable institution on Prussian soil, given the flourishing institutes in Vienna and Leipzig. Becker was interested in making the conservative, hierarchical medical training more progressive within the framework of a democratization of the universities that he had in mind. A discipline oriented toward the humanities seemed to him to be the most suitable for this purpose. At the same time, he reacted positively to various efforts to institutionalize the history of science more strongly in Germany, which at that time was among the world leaders in many branches of science. Relatively early on, therefore, it was decided to locate the corresponding research institute in Berlin, the capital of the Reich, on the one hand, and to focus it not only on the history of medicine, but also on that of the natural sciences, on the other.

A network of scholars from the still rather young field of the history of science and disciplines, first and foremost Karl Sudhoff, succeeded in keeping the topic on the political agenda. Already in 1924, the Berlin surgeon August Bier had suggested to the Minister of Culture Becker that the Berlin chair for the history of medicine be reoccupied, and a year later Sudhoff also wrote to the Minister, complaining that "historical research in our discipline is so completely lacking in Berlin [...]". After all, there was already a professional society in existence since 1901 and a journal of its own, which facilitated Sudhoff's efforts to steadily increase the "virulence" of the field, starting from Leipzig. In 1927, an Institute for the History of Natural Sciences had already been established in several rooms of the Berlin City Palace. Julius Ferdinand Ruska, who had previously held a chair for the history of natural sciences in the Orient at the University of Heidelberg, was appointed director.

In August 1929, just weeks before the outbreak of the Great Depression, Minister of Culture Becker applied to the Prussian Ministry of Finance for the sum of 166,000 Reichsmarks for the formation of an Institute for the History of Medicine and the Natural Sciences and for the construction of the associated library. In the application, Becker mentioned the complaints of medical representatives that prospective physicians lacked any knowledge of the history of their science and that the general education of physicians was thus increasingly declining. The faculty did not agree on Henry Ernest Sigerist, who had been Sudhoff's successor in Leipzig since 1925 and was favored by Becker and most of the reviewers, as director of the institute and chair holder, but on Paul Diepgen (1878-1966), a gynecologist from Freiburg who had been habilitated in the history of medicine. He took office on April 1, 1930.

In the following months, a total of 22 rooms were prepared for the new research facility in a building at Universitätsstraße 3b. In view of the now clearly noticeable economic crisis, not all of the original plans could be implemented. Nevertheless, the financial and personnel resources were unusually good. With the director, two department heads, four assistants, two secretaries, a librarian and a technical assistant, the institute was one of the largest of its kind in the world. The fact that as a central state institute it was not subordinate to the university, but directly to the Reich and Prussian Ministries of Science, Art and National Education, also had the effect of preferential treatment in the allocation of funds. In 1931, Ruska's Institute for the History of Natural Sciences was integrated into the overall institute in terms of space and personnel. A small pharmacy history department was added.

History of Medicine under National Socialism

Der erste Standort des Instituts in der Universitässtraße 3b

The National Socialists saw in the history of medicine a welcome opportunity to make their ideology even more effective within medicine. At the same time, they instrumentalized the subject to make their racist health policy appear historically legitimized. Medical historians like Diepgen, in turn, were quick to recognize the potential that these intentions offered for their discipline. In many of his publications, Diepgen made positive references to the National Socialist system, including in his textbook "Die Heilkunde und der ärztliche Beruf," published in 1938. In addition, he tried to present his subject as politically useful, for example in the development of a specifically National Socialist medical ethic. In 1939, the history of medicine was made a compulsory subject in medical studies throughout the Reich.

Diepgen's behavior between 1933 and 1945, however, was complex. When two assistants classified as "non-Aryan," Ludwig Edelstein and Paul Kraus, were forced to leave the institute in 1933, Diepgen stood up for them and asked to be allowed to continue employing them, but was refused. He enabled Jewish doctoral students to complete their theses, which was not a matter of course at the time. Diepgen also did not join the NSDAP. On the other hand, during the war he habilitated two SS doctors at his institute, who had the task of establishing a medical historiography that was close to the party and the SS. In the planned new building of the university hospital in western Berlin, Diepgen had been able to secure extensive space thanks to good relations with Hitler's accompanying physician Karl Brandt. In summary, Diepgen can therefore be considered neither a convinced National Socialist nor a persecutor of the Nazi regime, even if he claimed the latter for himself several times after the war.

Postwar period and division

Charité-Neubau (Hochhaus) von 1982 mit alten Kliniken rechts und links
Charité-Hochhaus von 1982

After the end of the war, in which the institute in Universitätsstraße had been considerably damaged but not destroyed, Diepgen endeavored to save his life's work and to adapt the teaching and research content to the new circumstances.

"In the coming semester, I intend to read an introduction to the study of medicine that takes account of the new situation, and to hold a seminar exercise on the scientific achievements of eminent Russian physicians," he wrote in June 1945.

But a prosperous cooperation between Diepgen and the Soviet occupation forces did not materialize. In 1947 Diepgen followed his most important collaborator Edith Heischkel-Artelt to Mainz and established a new center of medical history at the university there. A twelve-year interregnum followed for his former institute, located in the Soviet sector of Berlin. Several candidates from the Federal Republic, mostly former Diepgen students, turned down the traditional chair offered to them at the university named after Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt since 1949. It was not until 1959 that the psychiatrist Alexander Mette (1897-1985) was appointed again. After all, large parts of the library, which had been moved to Pomerania in 1944 to protect it from air raids, were brought back to Berlin as early as 1956.

After 1963: two medical history institutes

The Institute for the History of Medicine, founded at Freie Universität in 1963, was the result of a recommendation by the West German Science Council that chairs in the history of medicine be established at every medical faculty. The aim was to open up medical studies in the direction of the humanities - a development that was continued in the 1970s by integrating other subjects (medical sociology and psychology).

The first director and chair holder in West Berlin was Heinz Goerke (*1917). The institute was housed in a villa at Augustastraße 37 in Berlin-Lichterfelde. In 1967, Gerhard Baader (1928-2020) joined the institute as an assistant. In the 1980s, Baader made medicine under National Socialism one of the Institute's research foci. He was scientifically active here until his death. After Goerke's departure for Munich, Richard Toellner (*1930) took over as director of the institute until he accepted a call to Münster in 1974.

In East Berlin, Alexander Mette was succeeded in 1965 by the social hygienist Dietrich Tutzke (1920-1999) as director of the institute and professor of general medical history. In the same year, a separate chair for contemporary medical history had also been established. Its holder, Gerhard Misgeld (1913-1991), also temporarily took over the direction of the institute, alternating with Tutzke.

Its 50th anniversary was celebrated in 1980 with a festive colloquium in the Senate Hall of the University Unter den Linden. In 1985 Georg Harig (1935-1989) became the new director of the institute. Harig devoted himself in particular to the study of ancient medicine, so that, in addition to the social history of medicine, a further focus of his work emerged. After Harig's early death, the gynecologist Peter Schneck (*1936) succeeded him in February 1990. Schneck was appointed from Greifswald, but had already been an assistant at the Berlin Institute in the early 1980s. A few months after Schneck took office, the Institute left its traditional premises in Universitätsstraße after 60 years and moved to a wing of the former Surgical University Clinic in Ziegelstraße on the other side of the Spree. Planning for this move had already begun in 1983. In 1992, the library also followed, in the meantime partially operating as the History of Science Branch Library. In the years following German reunification, the institute suffered significant staff cuts. When Schneck retired in 2002, the Berlin Wall had already been history for twelve years and the merger of the medical departments of Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität was underway. Initial cross-border contacts between the two institutes had already taken place in the 1980s.

History of Medicine at the Charité Center for Human and Health Sciences

Eingang der Thielallee, Dahlem
Eingang zum Institut in Dahlem

In this process, after the political "Wende" in the GDR, the Charité Center for Human and Health Sciences also came into being, under whose roof the two medical history institutes also found a place. Among the founding fathers of CC1 was the director of the West Berlin Institute for the History of Medicine, Rolf Winau (1937-2006). Winau was a student of Edith Heischkel-Artelt and had been appointed to Freie Universität from Mainz in 1976. His areas of work included the history of biologism and National Socialism.

Under Winau's aegis, the Institute moved in the late 1980s to a larger building with its own annex for the library at Klingsorstrasse 119 in Lichterfeld, where a research unit for contemporary history was also established in 1986 under the direction of Udo Schagen (*1939), with its own budget and staff. In addition to Winau's chair, there were temporary professorships for cuneiform medicine in Sumer/Assyria (Franz Köcher, 1917-2002), for medicine in Eastern Europe (Heinz-Müller-Dietz, 1923-1998), for the history of pharmacy (Guido Jüttner, *1939), and for the history of medicine with special emphasis on dentistry (Johanna Bleker, *1940). As director of Charité Center 1, Winau handed over the directorship of the institute in 2001 to Johanna Bleker, who held it until 2004. Similar to the institute in Ziegelstraße, there were also significant job cuts over time. Rolf Winau died shortly after his retirement in 2006.

After the abandonment of the Klingsorstraße location, the institutes were spatially combined in Ziegelstraße. The library of the East Berlin Institute had already been administratively assigned to the University Library in 1973 (History of Science Branch Library). Today, the holdings are located in the Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum. The library from Klingsorstraße was temporarily placed in the Bettenhochhaus on the Mitte Campus.

In the fall of 2013, the Institute for the History of Medicine and Ethics in Medicine, directed by Volker Hess since 2004, was able to move into a new home at Thielallee 71 in Dahlem, where all staff members and the books of the former West Berlin Institute are now under one roof.

Further Information

More detailed information and background can be found in the publication "Medizingeschichte in Berlin. Institutionen - Personen - Perspektiven" (Berlin 2014), edited by Florian Bruns.