History of the Institute

A short summary about the Institute. Author: Wolfgang Elbert

The years in Berlin

The Kaiser Wilhelm Institut for Chemistry.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Institut for Chemistry.

Founded in December 1911, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry was opened on 23 October 1912. The founding director was Ernst Beckmann (1853-1923), who also directed the Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry. The Department of Organic Chemistry was led by Richard Willstatter (1872-1942), who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1915 for his work on plant pigments.

Fritz Straßmann, Lise Meinter and Otto Hahn (from the left).
Fritz Straßmann, Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn (from the left).

In the Winter 1938/1939 the works of  Otto Hahn (1879-1968), Lise Meitner (1878-1968), Fritz Straßmann (1902-1980) and Otto Frisch (1904-1979) led to the chemical evidence for and physical clarification of nuclear fission. Otto Hahn was director of the institute from 1928 to 1946. In 1946 he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the year 1944 in Stockholm.

The heavily destroyed KWI for Chemistry in 1944.
The heavily destroyed KWI for Chemistry in 1944.

During the war, in 1944, the Institute building was severely damaged as a result of air raids (photo 3). Everything that hadn't been destroyed was then stored in a closed textile factory in Tailfingen, Württemberg (present-day Albstadt), where the Institute continued the work it had started in Berlin for a time.

The years in Mainz

The former flak barracks in Mainz Bretzenheim in 1946, in which the institute moved into the 1949.
The former flak barracks in Mainz Bretzenheim in 1946, in which the institute moved into the 1949.

In 1946, Fritz Straßmann managed the construction of a new Institute on the site of the former Flak-Kaserne barracks in Bretzenheim, a stone's throw away from the newly-built university. Repair and renovation work was performed on existing buildings (picture 4), and some new ones were also constructed. But it was only in 1949 that work had progressed sufficiently for the Institute to move from Tailfingen to Mainz.

In the meantime, in the American and British occupied zone, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was restructured to form the Max Planck Society (MPG) in 1948. Otto Hahn was its first president. The former Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, which were located in the French zone, and the Mainz Institute, were renamed and incorporated into the MPG in 1949, creating the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Chemistry in Mainz. At that time, the Institute employed 53 members of staff. (Today, around 150 members of staff hold salaried positions, and a further 100 scholarship holders and visitors are on temporary contracts.)

1961 in Mainz
1961 in Mainz

The institute was officially inaugurated on July 9, 1956 following several years of construction. The Institute also became known as "Otto Hahn Institute" (photo 5). It was expanded in 1961 with the new Nuclear Physics Department building (photo 6), and again in 1985 when a larger building was required for the Department of Atmospheric Chemistry.

2012: Move into the new building

Das neue Institutsgebäude des Max-Planck-Instituts für Chemie am Hahn-Meitner-Weg 1 in Mainz. Foto: A. Reuter
The new building of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Hahn-Meitner-Weg 1, Mainz. Picture: A. Reuter

At the beginning of 2012 and after two years of construction, the Institute moved into its new building, which is located at the western edge of the Mainzer campus site and in the immediate vicinity of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research. The move became necessary as the old premises could not be renovated in an economic manner. The new building also provides enough space for the new Multiphase Chemistry Department which was founded in October 2012 and is led by PD Dr. Ulrich Pöschl.

In the same year, the Max-Planck-Institute for Chemistry also celebrated its 100. birthday. On this occasion several commemorative events took place. In addition to a historical science colloquium, an official ceremony and a Day of the Open House the exhibition “milestones” was created. This exhibition highlights some of the most important moments in the Institute’s history. Click here to get more information.

100-Jahre Kaiser-Wilhelm/Max-Planck-Institut für Chemie

Labor von Ernst Otto Beckmann am KWI für Chemie 1912, Bild: Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Labor von Ernst Otto Beckmann am KWI für Chemie 1912, Bild: Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Das Mainzer Institut feierte am 23.10.2012 sein 100-jähriges Bestehen, denn am 23. Oktober 1912 eröffnete das Vorläuferinstitut, das Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Chemie, in Berlin seine Türen. Noch zum Ende des zweiten Weltkriegs verließen die Forscher den Gründungsort und zogen unter ihrem damaligen Direktor Otto Hahn provisorisch auf die Schwäbische Alb. 1949 wurde das Institut für Chemie dann in die Max-Planck-Gesellschaft integriert und fand in Mainz seinen neuen Standort.

Die Forschungsthemen der Chemiker waren in den 100 Jahren mindestens so vielfältig wie ihre Forschungsstätten: Der Untersuchung von Pflanzenfarbstoffen durch Nobelpreisträger Richard Willstätter folgte 1938/39 die Entdeckung der Kernspaltung durch Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner und Fritz Strassmann für die Hahn 1945 den Nobelpreis bekam. In den 1960er Jahren stand das Institut durch seine Mondforschung im öffentlichen Rampenlicht. Und in den 1980er Jahren festigte der Nobelpreisträger Paul Crutzen mit dem Thema Ozonabbau die Atmosphärenchemie als Forschungsrichtung.

Heute beschäftigt sich das Mainzer Institut primär mit den chemischen Wechselwirkungen zwischen Erde und Atmosphäre. Aus Anlass des Jubiläums fand am 22.10. das wissenschaftliche „Symposium Earth system chemistry: Future perspectives“ statt.