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What was it like to get a PhD in the 1840s?

14 October 2016
The rare step of pursuing a science doctorate required not only hard work and ingenuity but also fluency in German, as scientific luminaries John Tyndall and Edward Frankland discovered.

In the fall of 1848, two British schoolteachers arrived in Marburg, a university town about 100 km north of Frankfurt in the German electorate of Hesse. John Tyndall and Edward Frankland had traveled more than 800 km by rail and stagecoach, and had encountered several delays caused by the revolutions that swept the European continent that summer. But at last they had reached their destination and were ready to pursue their somewhat unusual goal: earning doctorates in the natural sciences.

Tyndall and Frankland would go on to become two of Victorian Britain’s most prominent men of science. (British researchers had not yet started calling themselves scientists.) The groundwork for that later success was laid in large part by each man’s bold decision to enroll at the University of Marburg.

A building at the University of Marburg, present day.
A building at the University of Marburg, present day.

Today most aspiring researchers would take it for granted that they should enter a PhD program. But in the 1840s, there was no equivalent to the doctoral degree at any British university. In fact, many prominent British researchers lacked any university degree at all and had learned their science through apprenticeships or self-education.

German universities, by contrast, had begun offering doctorates in the sciences in the early 19th century. The degrees required students to pass three rigorous vivâ voce (oral) examinations—one in a primary subject and two in secondary subjects—and to write a dissertation in their primary field of study. It was a far more intensive and research-focused degree program than any available in the UK. Tyndall and Frankland therefore decided to join the growing number of students who were flocking to the German states for scientific study.

There was just one minor barrier: the language. Frankland had spent the summer of 1847 in Germany and knew enough of the language to get by, but Tyndall spoke almost no German at all. Ultimately Tyndall would spend just under a year teaching himself German before he enrolled at Marburg. He continued studying the language even as he attended lectures and wrote his dissertation in German.

Life and studies at Marburg

Edward Frankland in the late 1840s.
Edward Frankland in the late 1840s.

At Marburg, Frankland chose chemistry as his primary field, with physics and mathematics as his secondary fields. He already had some experience as a research chemist and had chosen Marburg because of the opportunity to work with the great Robert Bunsen. Frankland immediately began working on a series of complicated organic analyses to present in his dissertation. He had to purchase many of his chemical supplies with his own funds, and many substances were not sold in a form pure enough for chemists. According to biographer Colin Russell, Frankland often had to spend a day or more washing, distilling, and drying his compounds before he could use them in an actual experiment.

Nonetheless, Frankland’s past experience as a chemist meant he was able to pass his vivâ voce and defend his dissertation in the summer of 1849. He also found time for his personal life. On his previous trip to Hesse, Frankland had fallen in love with a German woman named Sophie Fick. Undeterred by the 80 km distance between Frankland’s residence in Marburg and Fick’s home in Kassel, the two renewed their relationship, and by October 1849 they were engaged.

Tyndall’s path at Marburg was less immediately clear. He would be supporting himself on his savings, and he was eager to finish his studies before his money ran out. He chose to write his dissertation in the area where he had the most previous knowledge—mathematics—and study physics and chemistry as secondary fields.

John Tyndall in the early 1850s.
John Tyndall in the early 1850s.

Tyndall described his typical day at Marburg in a letter to two friends in Britain:

I work tolerably hard—up at 5 oC every morning—work at German until 7½ breakfast, from 8 to 9 a lecture on Physics—9 to 10 Professor Bunsen on Chemistry—4 to 5 a private lesson from the professor of mathematics … the day I spend in the laboratory—have tea at 6 oC and study mathematics until 10 at which hour I punctually go to bed. I’m not likely to get fat on this work for so far I have stood it very well.

By 1850—scarcely two years after arriving in Germany—Tyndall too had earned his doctorate after successfully defending a dissertation about the mathematical properties of screw surfaces. However, the work he found most engaging was a collaboration with his physics professor Hermann Knoblauch on the diamagnetic properties of crystals. Like Frankland, Tyndall and Knoblauch also faced challenges obtaining materials for their experiments; Knoblauch frequently had to travel to Berlin, nearly 500 km away, to obtain crystals to analyze.

Groundwork for future success

By the time they finished their degrees, Tyndall and Frankland had already established research programs that would contribute enormously to their scientific reputations. Frankland became Britain’s most significant 19th-century chemist. He was a codiscoverer of helium and is also credited as one of the founders of organometallic chemistry, an interest he first developed while working with Bunsen at Marburg.

Tyndall’s first published physics paper grew out of his work with Knoblauch at Marburg. That research would become the basis for his election to the Royal Society of London in 1852—an achievement that paved the way for his appointment to London’s Royal Institution, where he eventually succeeded the legendary Michael Faraday. Today Tyndall is best remembered as the physicist who discovered that carbon dioxide retains heat, the property we now associate with greenhouse gases.

The quest for a PhD has become so ingrained in most fields that it can be easy to forget that scientific education has not always been so standardized. In the 1840s, when Tyndall and Frankland first began dreaming of careers in natural philosophy, the path toward that goal was by no means smooth or obvious. It took imagination—and not a little courage—to become a doctoral student in the sciences.

Melinda Baldwin is the Books editor at Physics Today. She is also a member of the John Tyndall Correspondence Project and a coeditor of volume two of The Correspondence of John Tyndall, originally published by Routledge in 2015. Volumes 1 and 2 of the Tyndall correspondence were reissued in 2016 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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