GERTRUD WOKER: HER BIOGRAPHY
A headstrong child
Gertrud Woker learned in her parents' home that education and knowledge are the prerequisites for a self-determined life. The father was a respected professor of history and theology - he fought with the Pope and dealt intensively with the French Revolution and the ideas of the Enlightenment. Well-known artists and scholars went in and out of the family. Even as a child, Gertrud showed a spirit of contradiction.
She was a freedom-loving child who preferred to deal with worms outside than to practice her handwriting inside. For Woker, nature has always been an important source of inspiration and energy. In romantic poems she praised nature as a place of retreat and harmony, where she could recharge her batteries during her hardest times.
Despite disciplinary problems, she graduated from school with top marks. However, her wish to attend a secondary school was not fulfilled because her father thought it more sensible to send Gertrud to her uncle in Erfurt in a housekeeping school. But Gertrud did not give up on her dream and secretly studied for the Matura exam that night. This gave her the opportunity to be one of the first women ever to study natural sciences at the University of Bern. The prospective chemist dedicated her dissertation to her rabbit and completed every subject with Summa Cum Laude. In 1907 she was appointed the first chemistry lecturer in German-speaking countries and, after enthusiastic reviews of her first publications, she was even offered a professorship in Leipzig in 1911. However, she turned down the opportunity to become Germany's first female professor because she was promised better working conditions in Bern. But these promises were never kept and Woker had to fight for a decent wage all his life.
Introduction to the women's rights and peace movement
During a study visit to Berlin, Woker came into contact with the local women's movement and began campaigning for women's suffrage and women's issues at universities. As early as 1917, she demanded “equal pay for equal work”. With her demands, Gertrud Woker turned established forces in Bern's scientific community against her. After a brilliant start, her career stalled. All requests to enlarge their laboratory or to get a reasonable salary were rejected.
To make matters worse, Woker saw the natural sciences - contrary to the zeitgeist - in a broad context. As early as 1911, she submitted an application to merge chemistry and biology into biochemistry. Back then, the matter was ridiculed, today the subject of biochemistry is a matter of course. A chair of the kind that Woker wanted was only introduced at the University of Bern in 1968.
Criticism of abuse of scientific research
Woker's conflicts with the university administration intensified when they spoke out against the misuse of scientific research for military purposes during the First World War. Through her research in the field of biology and chemistry, she recognized the devastating long-term consequences of the poison gas war early on and criticized chemical warfare in books and lectures. At that time politics exerted a great influence on science. Fritz Haber, the inventor of gas warfare in Germany, received the Nobel Prize shortly after the First World War in 1918. Tests with poison gas were also carried out at the University of Bern.
International Women's League for Peace and Freedom
The experience of World War I made Woker a committed pacifist. In 1915, at the International Women's Peace Congress in The Hague, the International Women's League for Peace and Freedom was founded, to which the later Nobel Prize winners Jane Addams (1931) and Emily Greene Balch (1946) belonged. Gertrud Woker also joined the movement and became a leading member. In the 1920s she toured America with a group of activists to give lectures and educate people about the dangers of chemical warfare. She and her friends were convinced that education about the consequences of a coming war was the prerequisite for moving the peoples to peaceful understanding. The lectures met with great interest and thus also aroused the attention of militarist and nationalist circles, whose representatives did everything to reduce the integrity of these lectures: “A group of women is currently traveling the country to relieve their nervous tension. Their obviously overstrained state of mind allows them to be classified as mentally ill ».
Research work in the USA
"We did not allow our opponents to intimidate us," Gertrud Woker stated, and a year later, in 1925, traveled again to the USA to work at the Physiatric Institute in Morristown and to deepen her scientific knowledge. But there Woker was confronted with a militaristic and nationalist-minded workforce, who did not give the avowed pacifist a chance. She was the victim of bullying, sexist attacks and denunciations. Woker interpreted the attacks as a reaction to her internationally successful book against the poison gas war. Plagued by fears of persecution, Woker returned to her family in Switzerland to relax and recharge.
Observation by intelligence services
In Switzerland, too, pacifism was observed by the intelligence service during the Second World War and especially during the Cold War, and received entries even at the age of 80. Anyone who was critical of the military and rearmament was under general suspicion. But she never let herself be stopped from fighting for peace with women on both sides of the ideological rift. She was well aware of the consequences: "I gladly and happily dismissed the serious warning that I will spoil my career, in the opinion that the fight for a good cause is worth more than countless careers."
Reputation in circles of women and peace activists
Regarded by politicians as a threat to the country's ability to defend itself, on the other hand, she was internationally respected and revered by many women. Her book on the poison gas war reached 9th editions. She herself received countless requests for lectures all over Europe in order to pass on her knowledge. She was also a speaker at a congress of the League of Nations (predecessor of the UN). There she appeared as a representative of the women's league.
During her lifetime she was internationally known. She finally died at the age of almost 90 in a psychiatric clinic in Préfargier - but the reason for her admission remains hidden, as a medical file has not yet been made available to historical research. Gertrud Woker herself wrote that her spirit and her ideals were never broken and that attempts to silence her were always unsuccessful.