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Heidelberg--Past Romantic but School Looks to Modern Studies

March 09, 1986|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

HEIDELBERG, West Germany — For 600 years, Heidelberg has been Germany's leading university, the breeding place of philosophers, physicists and fraternity men given to dueling with sabers.

To many, Heidelberg is associated with carousing undergraduates, as in the Sigmund Romberg operetta "The Student Prince." But as the university observes its sixth centenary this year, its academic leadership is looking not back to the romantic past but ahead to education in the 21st Century.

The faculty treasures its association with the academic giants of the past, but the emphasis today is on advanced areas of knowledge--molecular biology, nuclear physics, medical research. The dueling saber has given way to the laser spectrometer.

Dueling Societies

"Sure, there were student dueling societies here," administrator Michael Schwarz told a recent visitor. "We still have the fraternities, the Burschenschaften, but there are only a small number left, and if the members still occasionally duel, they keep their activities hidden."

Schwarz pointed to an ambitious program of academic events scheduled for the anniversary year, culminating in a Founder's Day ceremony on Oct. 18. There will be congresses, symposiums, concerts, theatrical performances, exhibitions, lectures and sporting events. The theme will be "From Tradition Into the Future."

The university rector, Gisbeit Freiherr zu Putlitz, a renowned solid-state physicist who has worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said: "For 600 years, the university has proved its vitality and its strength to survive. This anniversary should be the propellant for the scientific development in all the fields to meet the challenges of the future."

Toward that end, Putlitz has placed special emphasis on research in such fields as molecular biology and cancer research, and he has tied the university in with innovative private corporations in the economically progressive state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

"In this way," he said, "the impact of new ideas and methods from the outside is as significant as the traditional continuity of thought and wisdom."

The rector pointed out that Heidelberg has 18 separate faculties with more than 120 institutes and other academic facilities in fields ranging from archeology to zoology, from ancient history to physics, from anesthesiology to Oriental studies and from American studies to mathematics.

There are about 28,000 students at Heidelberg, divided between two campus areas: the humanities, in the handsome, colorful Old Town, and the sciences, across the Neckar River in a postwar complex of modern buildings and laboratories.

The university's motto is Semper apertus, "Always Open," and it has never closed its doors.

It all began on Oct. 23, 1385, when Pope Urban VI signed a papal bull establishing the institution. A year later the first class was held--on Aristotle's writings.

Over the years, Heidelberg has often been a center of political and religious controversy. It was founded during the Great Schism, when the Roman Catholic Church was struggling under two rival popes. Later, at the time of the Reformation, it was contested by Catholics and Protestants. In 1518, Martin Luther read his theses, which were to become the bases of the Reformation, in a square at Heidelberg.

At the time of the Thirty Years' War, in the first half of the 17th Century, some of the university's most precious books were taken from its library and moved to the Vatican. The city was razed by the French armY in 1693, but it was rebuilt, and today the oldest standing building dates from the reconstruction period.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the institution flourished. Wolfgang von Goethe took a room here to write poetry; philosopher Georg Hegel, the intellectual stepfather of Marxism and existentialism, was on the faculty; Robert Wilhelm von Bunsen, inventor of the Bunsen burner, taught chemistry here.

And the dueling societies were formed. Their members wore distinctive caps and scarfs--and scars as a badge of their manhood--and they dueled with foil and epee as well as the saber.


By the late 19th Century, Heidelberg's medical faculty had become world-renowned, producing such scholars as Ludolf Krehl; Albrecht Kossel, who won a Nobel Prize in 1910; and Otto Fritz Meyerhof, who won a Nobel in 1922. It was the university's excellence in medicine that led to the establishment of the largest hospital complex in the country and the German Cancer Research Institute.

The university claims five other Nobel laureates: physicists Walther Bothe, J. H. D. Jensen and Philipp von Lenard, and chemists Georg Wittig and Richard Kuhn. In the humanities, sociologist Max Weber and philosopher Karl Jaspers have added to the university's 20th-Century luster.

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