The physician Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut: The involuntary end of a scientific career

Doris Fischer-Radizi

Source Description

In 1923, Rahel Plaut became the first woman to habilitate at the Medical Faculty in Hamburg and the third woman ever to do so in Germany, with a thesis on isometric contractions in skeletal muscle. In this excerpt from her 1922 diary, she describes her attendance of the 34th Congress of the German Society of Internal Medicine Deutsche Gesellschaft für Innere Medizin in Wiesbaden in April 1922. The Congress of Internists was one of the most important congresses of scientific exchange. In 1922, only one woman, the internist Klotilde Meier, gave a lecture. Rahel Plaut, with the help of Otto Kestner (born Cohnheim), who ceded his time to contribute to the discussion to her, was able to present her research results, which were also recognized by her colleagues. The notes are included in diary no. 19 of a total of 73 written by Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut between the age of eight and 98. They were more important to her than her scientific papers, which she did not take with her into emigration. The diaries were not written continuously, some volumes have large gaps of one to two months while some closely describe every day. She rarely gives information about her feelings, and her opinions about other people are sometimes quite harsh. Her diaries are a treasure trove of experienced history and provide insight into personal, professional and political matters as well as into the inner workings of institutions such as the Eppendorf Hospital. The diaries served as a source for her biographical notes about her father as well as her manuscript about her time in Hamburg from 1932 to 1938, which she wrote for her grandchildren at the age of 85. The 73 diaries, along with many other records, are held in the family archive in Winchester. Maggie Carver has kindly given me the diaries not only for digitization but also for further use.
  • Doris Fischer-Radizi

The scientist Rahel Plaut – Biography


Rahel Plaut Since this text describes a period of time before Rahel Plaut married Hans Liebeschütz, I use her maiden name here. came from a Jewish family whose members had taken advantage of the opportunities offered by Jewish emancipation in the 19th century and had prospered. Her parents belonged to the liberal Jewish Temple congregation. Her father, Hugo C. Plaut, headed the institute for fungal infection research at the Eppendorf Hospital and was an internationally recognized researcher in this field. Her mother came from a wealthy family, originally from Alzey and now living in Hamburg. Rahel Plaut followed in her father’s footsteps, and studied medicine. After a short period of clinical work, she became a research assistant in 1919 and a private lecturer in 1923 at the Physiological Institute of the Eppendorf General Hospital, which was headed by Otto Kestner. She belonged to the second generation of women who were able to study and pursue an academic career in Germany.

The 34th Congress of the German Society of Internal Medicine in Wiesbaden in 1922


The excerpt from her diary presented here describes Rahel Plaut’s participation in the 34th Congress of the German Society for Internal Medicine in Wiesbaden from April 24 to 27, 1922. This congress remains an important institution of internal medicine training to this day. 700 physicians came to Wiesbaden in 1922, and 126 lectures were held to present and discuss the latest findings in medical research. In addition to Rahel Plaut, eight colleagues from the Eppendorf Hospital traveled to Wiesbaden, including her boss, Otto Kestner, and Fritz Rabe, an internist with whom she had published an article on low-protein nutrition. The medical director of the Eppendorf Hospital, Ludolph Brauer, in whose I. Medical Department Rahel Plaut had worked before moving to the Physiological Institute, gave the keynote address at the beginning of the congress in his capacity as the first chairman of the German Society for Internal Medicine Deutsche Gesellschaft für Innere Medizin.

On the very first day of the congress, April 24, Rahel Plaut had the opportunity to present her research results on “Temperature regulation of the liver” in a discussion contribution. Otto Kestner had asked to speak and had ceded his speaking time to her. “My subject is making an impression on the participants. (L.R. Müller, [illegible material], Grafe),” she wrote in her diary. Rahel Plaut diary 1922, 24 April. “Her subject” raised the interest of Erich Grafe, an internist from Rostock, and Ludwig Robert Müller, an internist from Erlangen. Both had given lectures on metabolism and innervation of the liver. The next day after the first lectures she met Müller from Erlangen, Schenk, and Walter Arnoldi (1881-1960), an internist at the Charité, whom she knew from Berlin, for breakfast. She was included in the collegial, professional exchange.

The only woman who gave a lecture at the congress was Klotilde Meier. She spoke on the topic “Surface changes of erythrocytes under the influence of electric current.” In her diary Rahel Plaut does not mention her colleague Klotilde Meier. It can be assumed that they had no contact with each other at the congress. It was not until Klotilde Meier became director of the Institute for Experimental Pharmacology and Balneology at the University of Hamburg in 1932 that Rahel Plaut sought her out to get her medical advice on treating her mother’s heart failure. She subsequently noted in her diary, “She makes a very good impression and advises some digitalis, low salt[r] diet & no drinking after 5 o’clock in the evening.” Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut diary, 1932, February 8. There is no record of any further encounters.

On the third day of the congress in Wiesbaden, Arthur Biedl, an internist from Prague, gave a lecture on the pituitary gland. “Brilliant,” noted Rahel Plaut in her diary. Biedl is considered the founder of endocrinology. And Biedl, she wrote, considered Otto Kestner’s lecture on “Gas Exchange in Pituitary Diseases” to be the most important lecture on the subject. Although she did not present her own work on the pituitary gland at the congress, she was very close to a new research topic, endocrinology. Rahel Plaut diary, 1922, April 26.

The unofficial congress


In addition to the official exchange, the unofficial meetings during coffee breaks and dinners played an important role. It is not known whether other women besides Rahel Plaut and Klotilde Meier took part in the congress. For the men it was unusual to meet women on their professional paths. Women were not able to study in Germany until 1900, at the Charité in Berlin until 1909, and only two women had habilitated in 1922. The next one to do so would be Rahel Plaut.

On her trip to Wiesbaden, Rahel Plaut rode on the same train with four Eppendorf colleagues, but they had no contact with each other. She was used to not being greeted by her Eppendorf colleagues on the hospital grounds. She attributed this misogynistic behavior to the influence of the fraternities. Because of the aggressive climate, she later recounted in an interview, women preferred to go to the Barmbek and St. Georg General Hospitals. Astrid Dageförde, Interview with Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut, o. O. 1985 [typoscript, Hamburg Library for University History, folder Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut]. Everyday life at the Eppendorf Hospital was also organized on a gender-segregated basis. The male residents ate in the doctors’ cafeteria. Rahel Plaut, on the other hand, took her meals at the women’s table in the general cafeteria, which was next to the large table for the medical assistants, i. e. the doctors in training.

It was only through her contribution to the discussion that she was noticed by the male congress participants and colleagues approached her. Thus, on the second day of the conference, she also had coffee with her Hamburg colleagues Konrad Bingold and Emil Le Blanc.

However, she was excluded from the banquet, which also took place on the second day of the congress. Despite her scientific qualifications, she was not a full member of the conference’s community of scientists. The official social part at congresses, which also served professional networking, was denied to their female colleague. Instead, Rahel Plaut was invited to the ladies’ dinner for the accompanying wives, which “[t]he gentlemen” joined late and “in high spirits,” as she noted in her diary. Rahel Plaut diary 1922, April 25.

Rahel Plaut’s scientific career


After receiving her license to practice medicine and her doctorate in the spring of 1918 and working for four months as a medical assistant to Siegfried Korach (1855–1943), the head physician of the internal medicine department of the Israelite Hospital in Hamburg, Rahel Plaut had worked for a year in the I. Medical Department at the Eppendorf Hospital. Together with a colleague, she was in charge of four wards occupied by women and children, and had done research on the “regulation of milk secretion” at the Physiological Institute on the side. But after only one year, like all women and young doctors who had not participated as soldiers in the First World War, she was dismissed to make room for the returning war veterans.

At the same time, Otto Kestner was approved for a new assistant position, which he offered to Rahel Plaut. On November 1, 1919, she took up her assistant position at the Physiological Institute in the Eppendorf Hospital, which had also had a medical faculty since April 1919. When Rahel Plaut went to the congress in Wiesbaden in April 1922, she had already worked as an assistant physician at the Physiological Institute for two and a half years. There she had assisted Kestner in organizing the seventh meeting of the German Society of Physiology Deutsche Gesellschaft für Physiologie in Hamburg in May 1920. And she was already able to present her first research results on the “effect of the ovarian hormone on the pelvis.” By the time of the congress in Wiesbaden, she had published seven articles on various topics. On January 24, 1922, she had presented the results of her gas exchange studies in diseases of the pituitary gland at the Biological Society in a lecture that attracted attention among her peers. Rahel Plaut diary 1922, January 24. Two further articles on the subject appeared after the Wiesbaden congress.

Even before her stay in Berlin and before the congress in Wiesbaden, Rahel Plaut had reason to hope that she could move back to the Internal Department, which she had reluctantly left in 1919. In February 1922, Ludolph Brauer made her an enticing offer: an assistantship with its own department. However, he told her she would have to be patient. For her upcoming stay in Berlin with Max Cremer and Peter Rona, she was to study the new method of electrocardiogram and alcalescens determination.

On March 7, she began her hospitation with Prof. Max Cremer, head of the Physiological Institute at Berlin’s College for Veterinary Medicine, and, according to Kestner’s suggestion, worked on the method of measuring the action current of nerves, although she still had hopes of returning to the clinic. It was not until June 17 that she wrote in her diary: “Brauer’s matter quite hopeless. Will probably return to Kestner.” Back in Hamburg, she remained with Kestner, with whom she was to do important work and publish reports in the years to come, and she also wrote her habilitation thesis on isometric muscle contraction, which she published in 1923.

Outlook


Rahel Plaut had to end her scientific activities against her wishes when she married Hans Liebeschütz in 1924. She continued to lecture as a private lecturer until her teaching license was revoked by the National Socialists in 1933 because she was Jewish. She emigrated with her family to Great Britain in 1938 and returned to Hamburg only for visits after 1945. At the 100th anniversary of the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf, she was invited as a guest of honor at the age of 95. The medical director and spokesman of the Department of Medicine, Prof. Karl Heinz Hölzer, apologized personally in an event in her honor for the injustice done to her, and Prof. Rumberger of the Institute of Physiology gave a lecture on her research. Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut spent the last years of her life with her daughter Elisabeth. She died at the age of almost 100 on December 22, 1993.

Select Bibliography


Ludolf Brauer / Anton Géronne (eds.), Verhandlungen der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Innere Medizin. Vierunddreissigster Kongress, gehalten zu Wiesbaden, vom 24.–27. April, München 1922.
Eva Brinkschulte (ed.), Spurensuche. Erste Ärztinnen in Hamburg und am UKE, Hamburg 2014.
Astrid Dageförde, Interview mit Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut, n. p. 1985 [typoscript, Hamburg Library for University History, folder Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut].
Doris Fischer-Radizi, Vertrieben aus Hamburg, in: Hamburger Ärzteblatt (2019), pp. 34-35.
Doris Fischer-Radizi, Vertrieben aus Hamburg. Die Ärztin Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut, Göttingen 2019.

Selected English Titles


Manfred Berg / Geoffrey Cocks (eds.), Medicine and modernity. Public Health and Medical Care in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Germany, Cambridge 1997.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the material is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute it in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.

About the Author

Doris Fischer-Radizi, born 1956, specialist in general medicine, practiced in Hamburg until 2013. She wrote her doctoral thesis on marriage and sexual counseling centers in the Weimar Republic and has reconnected with medical history topics by volunteering at the Medical History Museum of the University Hospital Eppendorf. In her publications she deals with female physicians and gender aspects in medicine as well as the perception of the female body by medical science.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Doris Fischer-Radizi, The physician Rahel Liebeschütz-Plaut: The involuntary end of a scientific career (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, June 17, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-276.en.v1> [December 02, 2021].

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the material is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute it in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.