“I, Hedwig Delpy” The first woman to complete a doctorate at ETH Zurich

No sooner had a new regulation enabling the Federal Polytechnic School (now ETH Zurich) to award doctorates come into force on 1 October 1909 than half a dozen applications were submitted. The final of these first six was from a woman.

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Hedwig Delpy to the Executive Board of the Federal Polytechnic School: application for permission to take the examination for a doctorate in the natural sciences, December 1909 (ETH-Bibliothek, ETH-Zurich University Archives, EZ-REK1 doctoral enrolment: Delpy, Hedwig).

This was extremely unorthodox as an education at a technical university, especially with higher academic honours, simply did not tally with the common perceptions of the role of women in everyday middle-class society. Women usually obtained their doctorates and other titles at the registry office through marriage – albeit socially, not legally. At least Delpy was a qualified chemist, a profession with ties to the housewifely duty of looking after family members. So far so good.

However, the opening line of her curriculum vitae, which had to be printed at the end of her doctoral thesis in accordance with the regulations, was – and still is – eye-catching: “I, Hedwig Delpy, born in Zurich in 1881 […]” No sign of the usual comely female reticence and modesty there. Only one of the five other applicants opted for the same sentence construction for his CV, but immediately went on to mention his father and his vocation. Delpy’s, however, does not contain any information on her family situation whatsoever. She was a woman of action, self do, self have.

A glimpse inside the City of Zurich’s old directories reveals that the independent-minded doctoral student’s parents both earned a crust as music teachers. Two younger brothers also followed in their big sister’s footsteps and studied chemistry at the Polytechnic School, as the university’s historical files reveal.

The music teachers’ daughter, who, according to the student register, was born on 24 July 1881, attended schools and a teachers’ seminary in Zurich, completed her school leavers’ certificate in Basel, was an apprentice and assistant at various pharmacies, embarked on a degree in pharmaceutics at the Federal Polytechnic School in 1904, passed her specialist pharmaceutics examinations in 1906 and assumed the administration of a pharmacy in Baden (Canton of Aargau) for a year. From the autumn of 1907 to the autumn of 1909, she worked on her dissertation at the Federal Polytechnic School under Carl Hartwich, a professor of pharmaceutics. The second marker was Carl Schröter, a professor of special botany.

“Uncharacteristic bout of nerves”

Delpy’s one-hour oral examination took place on 13 December 1909. Not Friday the thirteenth; just your average Monday. Nonetheless, the outspoken pharmacist’s nerves got the better of her. For the session held at four o’clock on 13 December 1909, the following is recorded in the Department of Pharmaceutics’ minutes for conference meetings under “Miss H. Delpy’s 3rd doctoral examination”:

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From: “Eidgen. Polytechnicum, Protokoll der Pharm. Abthlg, Sitzung vom 13. Dezember 1909, 4 Uhr” (ETH-Bibliothek, Hochschularchiv ETHZ, Hs 1075:1).

“The oral examination fell way short of the examiner’s expectations. On account of the diligent project submitted and assessed by Prof. Hartwich and Prof. Schröter entitled Beiträge zur Kenntnis pharmazeutisch verwendeter Labiaten (“Contributions Towards the Knowledge of Pharmaceutically Used Members of the Mint Family”) and in due consideration of the fact that the candidate has provided sufficient evidence of her skills and knowledge during her degree and her failure in the examination was evidently due to an uncharacteristic bout of nerves., the conference agrees unanimously to award the doctorate.”

With the heading “Board Minutes 22 Dec. 1909”, the conference involving all the heads of department on 17 December 1909 also reported the following:

“3. Miss Hedwig Delpy is rightfully awarded a doctorate in the natural sciences.”

Delpy was fortunate. The doctoral regulations allowed the possibility of repeating the oral examination if “the doctoral dissertation has been accepted, but the oral examination ends unfavourably”. In other words, the male conference members had exercised leniency.

The fact that the candidate’s supervisor was also head of the Department of Pharmaceutics and needed a replacement for his previous assistant, who had set his sights on another position, may have played a role here. Who could possibly have been more suited to the post than one’s own doctoral student with her respectable degree and didactic expertise from her previous training at the teachers’ seminary? An extension of the doctoral process with an uncertain outcome would have been an inconvenience.

At any rate, it is striking that on 21 December 1909, only four days after Delpy’s doctorate was confirmed by the conference of department heads, the resignation of the previous assistant and Hartwich’s application for the appointment of Delpy as his successor were both submitted to the President of the School Board.

Das pharmazeutische Laboratorium 1909. Zama, Aethew (?), Zuppiger, Toggenburger, Fehlmann, ?, Pr. Harmut (?), Frl. Deply, Heimgarten, Merz

“The Pharmaceutics Laboratory in 1909.” Sitting in the middle row, Hedwig Delpy, next to her doctoral supervisor, Professor Carl Hartwich, wearing a dark suit; standing behind her, Dr Friedrich Toggenburg, Hartwich’s assistant at the Pharmaceutics Laboratory (ETH-Bibliothek, Image Archive, Portr_11093).

Had Delpy already been aware of her mentor’s plans and his assistant’s intention to resign prior to her exam? Either way, she presumably went into her defence nervous in the knowledge that she would become the first woman to obtain doctorate at ETH Zurich. She could not afford to fail, to fall short of her own expectations and disappoint others.

If Hartwich’s intentions did trickle through or Delpy was informed in advance, she may have been reproached – or blamed herself – for trying to cheat a young and potential future family man and bread-winner out of a job and a living – by someone who, in keeping with the social conventions of the time, would get married and withdraw from professional life like a good housewife anyway. Did the assistant really have a new position in the bag? Had Hartwich urged him to look for something else? Had it been agreed that he would only have to resign if Delpy was successful, but could remain if she failed? A tricky situation that, if this is what actually happened, would not exactly have calmed her already frayed nerves.

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The next instalment of Hedwig Delpy’s doctoral thesis in Wissenschaftliche Mitteilungen in the Allgem. Österr. Apotheker-Verein’s journal, Vienna 1910, 48th year of publication. First instalment in: no. 21, 21 May 1910.

After getting off somewhat lightly in the examination, Delpy still had to wait to use the title of doctor. According to the regulations, her doctoral thesis needed to exist in printed form and its reception be confirmed by ETH Zurich first. However, the dissertation was initially published in weekly instalments in the Allgemeiner Österreichische Apotheker-Verein’s journal in Vienna from 21 May to 24 September 1910. Delpy’s mentor, Hartwich, was an honorary member of the association. Presumably, he had provided an advance reading copy. In the late autumn of 1910, the time had finally come: the obligatory printed copies of the complete work were handed in and the doctoral certificate was presented.

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Hedwig Delpy as an assistant at the Federal Polytechnic School’s Pharmaceutics Laboratory in 1910, from: Emma Steiger, Geschichte der Frauenarbeit in Zürich, Zurich 1964. Photo: from a private collection.

Already from the summer semester of 1910, “Frl. H. Delpy, Assistent des Pharmazeutisch-chemischen Labors” (Miss H. Delpy, Assistant at the Pharmaceutics and Chemistry Lab”) appeared in the prospectus (albeit minus her academic title). Together with Professor Hartwich – or in keeping with the official wording “Hartwich with Delpy” – she supervised a “Pharmaceutics Apprenticeship” for twelve hours a week, and the “Chemical Study of Foodstuffs and Semiluxury Foods” and “Pharmacognostic Exercises for the Advanced” on a daily basis. Among the lab apprentices she was instructing in the distillation, extraction, measurement and mixing of fluid and solid, healthy and toxic substances, she met a playfellow from her childhood years, her future husband. In February 1912, she resigned from her assistantship “due to the impending nuptials”.

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Hedwig Delpy to the Swiss School Board, 14 February 1912: petition for release as an assistant (ETH-Bibliothek, ETH-Zurich University Archives, SR3 1912/No. 178).

Pills, plankton, nappies and a world war

Two obituaries dedicated to Delpy’s husband decades later also provide clues as to her subsequent life. She married Fritz Nipkow, the son of a pharmacist in Stäfa, who, at his father’s request, abandoned a degree in dentistry and switched to pharmaceutics with a view to eventually taking over the family business. Nothing came of it. In 1912 the newlyweds opened their own pharmacy at Winkelriedstrasse in Zurich.

In parallel – or probably first and foremost – Nipkow practised hydrology, researched vegetable and animal microbes, was awarded the double Schläfli Prize by the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences for his work years later and completed a doctorate in 1927, albeit in hydrology, not pharmaceutics. As Otto Jaag, a professor of hydrology at ETH Zurich, wrote:

“No sooner did the young pharmacist have the state examination under his belt than he began to conduct research as an independent scholar, which, alongside his demanding vocation, filled every waking hour of his life and never waned until his death at the age of seventy-seven. […] The fact that he performed this research so comprehensively on the fringes of his professional activities, which carry so much responsibility in themselves, testifies to an astonishingly intensive and wise utilisation of the time and energy available to him.”    

Whose time and energy had Nipkow utilised so astonishingly intensively and wisely? Solely his own? The second obituary penned by Zurich physician and naturalist Gottfried Huber-Pestalozzi sheds some light on the matter. Following the outbreak of the First World War, Nipkow was called up:

“And so the full burden of the business lay on his young wife’s shoulders until the war was over. When the First World War ended in November 1918, Fritz Nipkow was able return to his orderly domestic life, his business and his family, which meanwhile had grown. Aside from these duties, for which he had yearned so much, he was also able to devote himself to scientific research again […]”

The shop, an orderly household, raising children: Delpy’s work, and without all the mod-cons and other facilities we are so accustomed to in our personal and professional lives today.

Hard times

The Winkelried pharmacy appears under Delpy’s name in the Zurich directory until 1931. The following year, the pharmacist vanishes from the directory of “Citizens and Residents”. Her husband was now named in connection with the pharmacy. In the directory of “Professions and Branches of Business”, however, she is still registered as the shop’s sole proprietor. Nipkow is only listed without his wife in both registries from 1933 onwards.

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From the City of Zurich’s directory, 1925: Dr Nipkow-Delpy runs the Winkelried pharmacy. Her husband Fritz also erroneously bears the title of doctor. The zigzags next to the names signify a telephone connection, which was increasingly becoming an indispensable piece of equipment for businesses, especially for a pharmacy to handle emergencies. For many private households, however, a telephone long remained a luxury.

Did the energetic pharmacist really withdraw from the realm of ointments, medicines, tablets and tinctures? If so, how would Nipkow have managed to keep indulging in his hydrology research? In actual fact, after his dissertation he did not publish anything else until the 1950s. Evidently, he had pursued a military career and been promoted to captain in 1933. It is quite possible that his wife finally wanted to cut back on her work load as a result. After all, she still had to manage the large family’s household.

The couple had a daughter and three sons. The eldest son followed in his parents’ footsteps and studied pharmaceutics at ETH Zurich, the middle son forestry and the youngest brother law at the University of Zurich. It is unclear whether their daughter followed her mother’s example and also obtained a degree.

The easing of Delpy’s professional burden, if indeed it happened at all, only lasted for a couple of years. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Nipkow was called up again from 1939 to 1942. Numerous interruptions for military service are also noted in the sons’ university files. Who stood in for the men in their absence during these testing times? Probably Delpy again.

The eldest son is registered in Zurich’s directory as a “stud.pharm.” from 1936. In the 1940 issue, he is a “cand.pharm”, married and no longer living at his parents’ address. According to Huber-Pestalozzi’s obituary for Nipkow, his son worked as a “qualified pharmacist alongside his father” in the family business from 1941. In 1942, however, he was killed when the air force plane he had been piloting crashed. The youngest son subsequently abandoned his law degree, began studying pharmaceutics and, following his state examination in 1949, entered the family business. In the meantime, it was presumably not solely the father, but both grieving parents who were running the pharmacy.

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Fritz Nipkow, Hedwig Delpy’s husband. Photo: quarterly newsletter from the Naturforschende Gesellschaft in Zurich, year 108,1963 p. 470.

From 1951, Nipkow began publishing regular biological papers again. In 1954 the youngest son took over the helm at the pharmacy. Nipkow fell terminally ill in 1959, but refused to abandon his research. Reluctant to listen to doctors and his wife, he eventually succumbed to his suffering in 1963. Four years later, on Good Friday, 24 March 1967, Delpy followed him to the grave after a serious illness.

Further reading

Delpy, Hedwig: Beiträge zur Kenntnis pharmazeutisch verwendeter Labiaten, Separatdruck aus Zeitschrift des Allgem. Österr. Apotheker-Vereines, Diss. Naturwiss. ETH Zürich, 1909.

Huber-Pestalozzi, Gottfried: Fritz Nipkow (1886-1963), in: Vierteljahresschrift der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Zürich, 108th year of publication, 1963, pp. 470-472.

Jaag, Otto: Fritz Nipkow zum Gedenken, in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Friday, 3 May 1963, morning issue, page 2, no. 1773.

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