Biography:Walter Gerlach

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Walther Gerlach
Walther Gerlach.jpg
Born(1889-08-01)1 August 1889
Biebrich, Hessen-Nassau, German Empire
Died10 August 1979(1979-08-10) (aged 90)
Munich, West Germany
Alma materEberhard Karls University of Tübingen
Known forStern–Gerlach experiment
Space quantization
Scientific career
InstitutionsJohann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main
Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen
Doctoral studentsGertrude Scharff Goldhaber[1]
Heinz Billing[2]

Walther Gerlach (1 August 1889 – 10 August 1979) was a German physicist who co-discovered spin quantization in a magnetic field, the Stern–Gerlach effect.


Gerlach was born in Biebrich, Hessen-Nassau, German Empire, as son of Dr. med. Valentin Gerlach and his wife Marie Niederhaeuser.

He studied at the University of Tübingen from 1908, and received his doctorate in 1912, under Friedrich Paschen. The subject of his dissertation was on the measurement of radiation. After obtaining his doctorate, he continued on as an assistant to Paschen, which he had been since 1911. Gerlach completed his Habilitation at Tübingen in 1916, while serving during World War I.[3]


From 1915 to 1918, during the war, Gerlach did service with the German Army. He worked on wireless telegraphy at Jena under Max Wien. He also served in the Artillerie-Prüfungskommission under Rudolf Ladenburg.[4][5]

Gerlach became a Privatdozent at the University of Tübingen in 1916. A year later, he became a Privatdozent at the Georg-August University of Göttingen. From 1919 to 1920, he was the head of a physics laboratory of Farbenfabriken Elberfeld, formerly Bayer-Werke.[3][4]

In 1920, he became a teaching assistant and lecturer at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main. The next year, he took a position as extraordinarius professor at Frankfurt. It was in November 1921/1922 that he and Otto Stern discovered spin quantization in a magnetic field, known as the Stern–Gerlach effect.[3][6][7] Otto Stern (compare his article) was among the nominees for the physics Nobel Prize in 1943 and was awarded the prize on 9 November 1944. The citation did not mention the highly important Stern-Gerlach experiment which Walther Gerlach finally carried out successfully early in 1922 during the Weimar Republic in the absence of Otto Stern who had already moved on to Rostock, thus withholding the honour from Gerlach in view of his continued activity in "Nazi-led" Germany (oral information from Prof. Dr. Horst Schmidt-Böcking, Institute for nuclear physics, Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität Frankfurt/Main in 2015, who conserves the unpublished documentation concerning the differing opinions within the Nobel-Committee on the subject of Walther Gerlach. Schmidt-Böcking is also engaged in the physical reassembling of Gerlach's experiment within the planned new Senckenberg-Museum at Frankfurt.

In 1925, Gerlach took a call and became an ordinarius professor at the University of Tübingen, successor to Friedrich Paschen. In 1929, he took a call and became ordinarius professor at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, successor to Wilhelm Wien. He held this position until May 1945, when he was arrested by the American and British Armed Forces.[3][5]

From 1937 until 1945, Gerlach was a member of the supervisory board of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (KWG). After 1946, he continued to be an influential official in its successor organization after World War II, the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (MPG).[3]

On 1 January 1944, Gerlach officially became head of the physics section of the Reichsforschungsrat (RFR, Reich Research Council) and Bevollmächtigter (plenipotentiary) of nuclear physics, replacing Abraham Esau. In April of that year, he founded the Reichsberichte für Physik, which were official reports appearing as supplements to the Physikalische Zeitschrift.[3]

From May 1945, Gerlach was interned in France and Belgium by British and American Armed Forces under Operation Alsos. From July of that year to January 1946, he was interned in England at Farm Hall under Operation Epsilon, which interned 10 German scientists who were thought to have participated in the development of atomic weapons.[3][5][8]

Upon Gerlach's return to Germany in 1946, he became a visiting professor at the University of Bonn. From 1948, he became an ordinarius professor of experimental physics and director of the physics department at the University of Munich, a position he held until 1957. He was also rector of the university from 1948 to 1951.[3]

From 1949 to 1951, Gerlach was the founding president of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, which promotes applied sciences. From 1949 to 1961, he was the vice-president of the Deutsche Gemeinschaft zur Erhaltung und Förderung der Forschung (German Association for the Support and Advancement of Scientific Research); also known in short as the Deutsche Forschungs-Gemeinschaft (DFG), previously the Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Wissenschaft.[3]

In 1957, Gerlach was a co-signer of the Göttingen Manifesto, which was against rearming the Federal Republic of Germany with atomic weapons.[3]

He died in Munich in 1979.

Other positions / Decorations / Honours

  • From 1935 – Chairman of the committee to appoint a successor to Arnold Sommerfeld.[3]
  • From 1939 – Member of the Comerlin working group on ship degaussing and torpedo physics.[3]
  • From 1948 – a member of the Göttingen, Halle, and Munich Academies of Sciences.[3]
  • Civil Class of the order Pour le Mérite.[3]
  • 1970 – Bundesverdienstkreuz mit Stern Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany
  • 2015 – Stern-Gerlach-Experiment part of World Cultural Heritage / Science (UNESCO)[citation needed]


  • Walther Gerlach: Matter, Electricity, Energy: The Principles of Modern Atomistic and Experimental Results of Atomic Investigations (D. Van Nostrand, 1928)
  • Mac Hartmann and Walther Gerlach: Naturwissenschaftliche Erkenntnis und ihre Methoden (Springer, 1937)
  • Walther Gerlach: Die Quantentheorie. Max Planck sein Werk und seine Wirkung. Mit einer Bibliographie der Werke Max Plancks (Universität Bonn, 1948)
  • Walther Gerlach: Probleme der Atomenergie (Biederstein Verlag, 1948)
  • Walther Gerlach: Wesen und Bedeutung der Atomkraftwerke (Oldenbourg, 1955)
  • Walther Gerlach and Martha List: Johannes Kepler. Leben und Werk (Piper Verlag, München 1966)
  • Walther Gerlach (editor): Das Fischer Lexikon – Physik (Fischer Bücherei, 1969)
  • Walther Gerlach: Physik des täglichen Lebens – Eine Anleitung zu physikalischem Denken und zum Verständnis der physikalischen Entwicklung (Fischer Bücherei, 1971) ISBN:3-436-01341-2
  • Walther Gerlach (editor): Physik. Neuasugabe Unter Mitarbeit Von Prof. Dr. Josef Brandmüller (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1978) ISBN:3-596-40019-8
  • Walther Gerlach and Dietrich Hahn: Otto Hahn – Ein Forscherleben unserer Zeit (Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft, WVG, Stuttgart 1984) ISBN:3-8047-0757-2
  • Walther Gerlach and Martha List: Johannes Kepler : Der Begründer der modernen Astronomie München, (Piper Verlag GmbH, 1987) ISBN:3-492-15248-1


  • Walther Gerlach and Otto Stern Das magnetische Moment des Silberatoms, Zeitschrift für Physik Volume 9, Number 1, 353-355 (1922). The article was received on 1 April 1922. Gerlach is cited as being at the University of Frankfurt am Main and Stern is cited as being at the University of Rostock.

See also

  • List of German inventors and discoverers


  1. Bond, Peter D.; Henley, Ernest (1999), Gertrude Scharff Goldhaber 1911–1998: A Biographical Memoir, Biographical Memoirs, 77, Washington, D.C.: The National Academy Press, p. 4 
  2. J. A. N. Lee (1995). Computer pioneers. IEEE Computer Society. ISBN 978-0-8186-6357-4. Retrieved 21 February 2016. 
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 Hentschel, 1996, Appendix F; see the entry for Walter Gerlach.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Mehra and Rechenberg, Vol. 1, Part 2, 2001, 436.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Bernstein, 2001, 364.
  6. Breitislav, 2003, 53-59.
  7. Walther Gerlach and Otto Stern Das magnetische Moment des Silberatoms, Zeitschrift für Physik Volume 9, Number 1, 353-355 (1922).
  8. The nine other scientists interned at Farm Hall with Gerlach were: Erich Bagge, Kurt Diebner, Otto Hahn, Paul Harteck, Werner Heisenberg, Horst Korsching, Max von Laue, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, and Karl Wirtz.


  • Bernstein, Jeremy Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall (Copernicus, 2001) ISBN:0-387-95089-3
  • Friedrich, Bretislav and Dudley Herschbach Stern and Gerlach: How a Bad Cigar Helped Reorient Atomic Physics Physics Today Volume 56, Issue 12, 53-59 (2003).
  • Hentschel, Klaus (editor) and Ann M. Hentschel (editorial assistant and translator) Physics and National Socialism: An Anthology of Primary Sources (Birkhäuser, 1996) ISBN:0-8176-5312-0
  • Mehra, Jagdish, and Helmut Rechenberg The Historical Development of Quantum Theory. Volume 1 Part 2 The Quantum Theory of Planck, Einstein, Bohr and Sommerfeld 1900–1925: Its Foundation and the Rise of Its Difficulties. (Springer, 2001) ISBN:0-387-95175-X