The Lieben Prize – History Interrupted and Time Regained

BRIDGES, Volume 2 (7/20/04)
Philipp Steger


Part I: 1862 - 1944

In 1944, Heinrich Lieben, an Austrian Jew, was murdered in Auschwitz.

Seven years earlier, Heinrich Lieben had made what was to become the last contribution to the Lieben Prize, a unique scientific award established by his family in 1862, following the death of his grandfather, the Viennese banker Ignaz L. Lieben.
When the Lieben Prize was founded in 1862, the Austrian Academy of Sciences was entrusted with administering the prize, a well-endowed award for outstanding physicists or chemists in the territory of the monarchy. The prize had been created at the urging of Ignaz Lieben’s son, Adolph Lieben, a chemist who was then working in Italy. Adolph Lieben was severely hampered in his own pursuit of a scientific career in Austria because the Austrian Concordat limited the number of positions at the universities to Catholics. Later, Adolph Lieben became the first Jew to hold chairs in Prague and Vienna.

During its time, the Lieben Prize was one of the most prestigious awards in the monarchy. The prize turned out to be extremely successful at singling out young scientists who later became acknowledged leaders in their scientific fields: four of the awardees, Fritz Pregl, Otto Loewi, Karl von Frisch and Viktor Hess, went on to win the Nobel Prize. Other outstanding scientists amongst the awardees were the physicists, Lise Meitner, Felix Ehrenhaft, Josef Stefan and the mathematician, Josip Plemelj.

The Lieben Prize was on the verge of becoming one of the indirect casualties of the great inflation in 1923 when the capital for this award was lost. The Lieben family, itself, not in a comfortable economic situation at that time, decided, however, to continue funding the prize and gave 1,000 Austrian Shillings annually.

What the global economic crisis had failed to destroy, the Nazis accomplished with the cruel efficiency of the ruthless and ignorant. While the prize had reflected the diversity and the scientific potential within the monarchy and amongst its peoples, its abandonment bore witness to the closing of the Austrian mind and to the destruction of the country’s intellectual wealth which would be irreversible for decades to come.

Part II: 1971 - 2004

The scientists depicted in the black-and-white photos on the wall of the small meeting room at the Vienna University of Technology look serious and scholarly, just like the lay person imagines real scientists ought to look.

In this austere-looking room with the black-and-white reminder of scientific genius on the wall sits a group of men gathered around a table, on which some invisible hand has laid out cookies, tea and coffee. It is an unusually warm day in March 2004, and these men - among them Christian Noe, Dean of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Vienna, and Arnold Schmidt, the former president of the Austrian Science Fund - have agreed to talk with me about how they and others were able to re-create the Ignaz L. Lieben Prize.

One of the men is Robert Rosner, a chemist and science historian, who started the initiative to revive the Lieben Prize. Rosner left Austria in 1939 on a Kindertransport, one of the sealed trains that brought at total of about 10,000, mostly Jewish, children to England. After the war, Rosner returned to Austria where he received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Vienna and later joined a chemical company. Upon his retirement, Rosner returned to the university, earning a degree in Political Science and the History of Science. It was during his work on a book about the history of chemistry in Austria that he became fascinated with the story of the Lieben Prize and did more research on the prize’s history. His enthusiasm infected others, most importantly Christian Noe and Peter Schuster, the latter being the Vice-President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Together, they started to propagate the idea of reviving the prize, and they set out to find sponsors in Austria. Along came Alfred Bader.

In 2003, a symposium, entitled "Austria and National Socialism: Implications for Scientific and Humanistic Scholarship," took place in Vienna. Some of the participants were renowned scientists - among them Nobel Prize laureates Eric R. Kandel and Walter Kohn who had fled Austria as children. One of them was Alfred Bader, for whom the conference gave a strong signal that Austria was indeed committed to reexamining its own history.

Alfred Bader, a former Austrian refugee who now lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, remembers his youth in Vienna vividly. He talks about going to school with fellow refugee, Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the Pill: " went to school with Karl for eight years. His family had a ping-pong table, where I learned how to play." Bader’s youth was short-lived, though: at age 14 he left Austria on one of the first Kindertransporte for England. Bader later was deported to Canada as an "enemy alien." He stayed in Canada and studied chemical engineering at Queen’s University. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University, Bader remained in the U.S. and eventually founded the chemical company, Aldrich, which is now Sigma-Aldrich, the world’s largest supplier of research chemicals. Since leaving Sigma-Aldrich in 1992, Bader has dedicated himself full-time to his great passion, the collection of Old Master paintings, which he started in his 20s. Alfred Bader has for many years now been a noted art collector and has his own gallery in Milwaukee. Most notably, he has been a generous philanthropist for many years.

"Bobby and I have been friends for 30 years," says Alfred Bader of Rosner - the two of them met when Robert Rosner was working for the Austrian chemical company Loba Chemie. When Bader learned about the Lieben Prize and about the intention to re-create it, he immediately liked the idea. Not a surprise really, since Bader had already funded numerous other scientific endeavors, amongst them the Joseph Loschmidt Chair at the University in Brno of the Czech Republic. Bader’s commitment to fund the award does, however, reflect a change in his perception of Austria. "When I first returned to Vienna occasionally after the war, the idea of establishing an award for Austrians was unthinkable. Whenever I met an Austrian older than myself, born in 1924, I wondered what that person had done in 1938. Yet most old Nazis have died, and I sense that the younger generations are better people." Bader tells the story of a friend of his, a devout Catholic and opponent of the Nazis who spent the war years in Dachau. "Whenever I visited him after the war we would talk about the Austrians, and we agreed that there were many good Austrians, but simply not enough of them." And then, of course, there were those whose motivation is hard to fathom, even today - like one of Bader’s former professors at the Gymnasium in Vienna: "He was a wonderful professor who was also a member of the NSDAP, but he treated the Jewish students very well. I visited him in 1949, and he told me that he had imagined the Third Reich to be something quite different."

Talking about his motivation to fund the Lieben Prize, Bader likes to tell the story of how one of his direct ancestors, Count Johann Carl Serényi, had participated in Vienna’s defense against the Turks in 1683 and of how his grandfather, Moritz Ritter von Bader, was knighted by Emperor Franz Joseph. And just in case one didn’t get it, he adds: "My roots are in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy." Apparently, the appreciation for the Austro-Hungarian monarchy "Bader was born after its demise - was instilled in Bader by his aunt and adoptive mother, Gisela Reich, who was an ardent patriot and supporter of the emperor. She was killed in Theresienstadt.

It is these roots that made Alfred Bader suggest to Robert Rosner that the Lieben Prize should be given to scientists from all those countries that used to be a part of Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Thus, molecular biologists, chemists or physicists from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria will be eligible. "The prize comes at a politically interesting time when the EU enlargement has brought the countries that formerly were part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy together in a modern European undertaking of incomparable scope. I think it is significant that the award was announced in all the different languages of those countries that were then part of the monarchy, and I hope that many scientists from these countries will win the prize," says Bader.
Back in the small meeting room at the University of Technology, the group of scientists and scholars have finished telling me the story of the Lieben Prize and have already started to talk about other history projects they plan - about how Austria needs more awareness of its history, of how there ought to be chairs for the history of science at the universities. They are an enthusiastic group, committed to and driven by a shared conviction that history has a lot to teach us.

After the two-hour meeting is over and everyone has left, Arnold Schmidt, who arranged the meeting, walks me around the meeting room and points out the names of the serious looking men on the wall. After many years of steering the fate of the Austrian Science Fund, the country’s key funding institution for basic research, Schmidt is still a busy man.

It’s not a bad world, I think, where people still take time for such things.

" Bridges" is a Quarterly published by the Office of Science and Technology at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. You will find a complete version of this article on their website (see above). A shortened version of this article will also appear in the publication "Nu" ( ), of the Israelite Religious Community in Vienna, Austria.