This portrait shows the Hamburg physician Eugen Fraenkel. His facial expression is serious, the forehead is marked by deep wrinkles, his moustache is accurate, and he gazes at the beholder through a pair of pince-nez. He wears a distinguished suit (black jacket, beige vest) with dark tie and white shirt and stand-up collar. The picture was painted by the Hamburg artist Gretchen Wohlwill in 1928 – three years after Fraenkel’s death. A photograph of the deceased served as a model. The oil portrait painted on canvas measures 65 x 75 cm and was signed by the artist in the lower right corner.
The medical faculty of Hamburg University acquired the finished painting in 1928 and hung it in one of its buildings. As evidenced by a preserved label on the back of the frame, the painting was later removed from its place and, according to the current state of research, delivered to a collection point for “degenerate art” on October 12, 1939 (“Deposited by Eppendorf University Hospital”). Today, the painting hangs in Hamburg’s Museum for the History of Medicine, which is housed in the former pathology building once planned for Fraenkel by city building director Fritz Schumacher.
The Hamburg cholera epidemic of 1892
Fraenkel’s role in establishing a medical faculty in Hamburg
The Fraenkel family under National Socialism
Born in Neustadt in Upper Silesia (today’s Prudnik in Poland), Eugen Fraenkel came to Hamburg as a young assistant physician in 1874. During his first years in the city, he worked at the General Hospital St. Georg, where he specialized in the field of pathological anatomy. In 1889, Fraenkel moved to the newly opened hospital in Eppendorf and from then on headed its pathological institute and the associated bacteriological department. He discovered the gas gangrene bacterium (Clostridium perfringens), the pathogen causing a life-threatening bacterial wound infection, which is also known as the “Welch-Fraenkel bacillus,” named after Fraenkel and the American bacteriologist William Henry Welch.
Eugen Fraenkel’s name is inseparably linked to a catastrophic event that etched itself into the collective memory of Hamburg’s citizens: the cholera epidemic of 1892. When the first suspected cases were admitted to the Eppendorf hospital with severe diarrhea and vomiting in mid-August of that year, Fraenkel was on vacation. The hospital’s medical director, Theodor Rumpf, and his resident physician, Theodor Rumpel, had initially been unable to clearly detect the cholera pathogen in the bacterial cultures they had quickly created.
It was only when Fraenkel returned that he was able to provide the corresponding evidence for the cholera bacterium identified by Robert Koch in 1884. The local health authorities were then informed of the danger. But it was already too late. The number of people suffering from cholera had risen sharply, and the first patients had died. Fearing the economic consequences for the Hanseatic city which depended on trade, the political decision-makers nevertheless hesitated for another two days before announcing the outbreak of the epidemic on August 24 and having the Senate order the first measures to fight the epidemic (such as the instruction to boil drinking water or the deployment of disinfection crews, for example).
When the outbreak slowly came to a halt after ten weeks, a total of 16,596 people in Hamburg were infected with cholera and 8,605 of them had died due to the disease. The cause of the epidemic was identified as the city’s inadequate drinking water supply system. For unlike in neighboring Altona, which already had a modern sewage treatment plant with sand filtration and therefore had hardly registered any cases, the inhabitants of Hamburg at that time were still being supplied with untreated water from the Elbe river. During that year’s hot summer, cholera pathogens had multiplied explosively in the Elbe water, which was polluted with feces – a fact that Fraenkel had already pointed out before the outbreak of the epidemic. Robert Koch, who was sent to Hamburg by the Prussian government, had discovered a second circumstance that favored the spread of cholera: the unhygienic living conditions that he saw during his inspection of the neighborhoods most affected by cholera, such as the Gängeviertel.
Eugen Fraenkel was also instrumental in founding the University of Hamburg. In contrast to Ludolf Brauer, the director of the Eppendorf hospital at the time, he supported the idea that in future medical students should also be trained in Hamburg. In 1918, the final year of the First World War, there were plans to establish a university in Hamburg without a medical faculty. Fraenkel took advantage of Brauer’s absence due to the war and, together with colleagues, organized the first medical courses for women and returning soldiers on his own initiative. This did not go unnoticed, and the commitment of Fraenkel and his colleagues finally paid off: When the university was founded in 1919, the city of Hamburg voted to establish a full university with a medical faculty.
Eugen Fraenkel was appointed first full professor of pathology. From 1921 to 1923 he was dean of the medical faculty. Already seriously ill, he gave his farewell lecture in December 1924. The fact that the medical faculty later acquired his portrait attests to Fraenkel’s importance and the desire to honor him beyond his death. After the National Socialists came to power, however, both Fraenkel and the artist who painted his portrait were no longer considered worthy of appreciation; the faculty had the painting taken down and delivered to a collection point for “degenerate art” in 1939.
Gretchen Wohlwill was a Hamburg-born painter who, as a student of the Académie Matisse in Paris, developed a painting style influenced by French avantgarde art. She was a member of the Hamburg Secession, an artists’ group founded in 1919, which dissolved on May 16, 1933, after the Nazi regime had called for the exclusion of its Jewish members. It was probably no coincidence that she painted Fraenkel’s posthumous portrait since there was a personal connection between the artist and the portrayed person: Her brother Friedrich Wohlwill, also a physician, had worked for Eugen Fraenkel at the pathological institute and had been his deputy for several years.
Because of their Jewish origin, the Wohlwill siblings were persecuted by the National Socialists. Gretchen emigrated to Portugal in 1940 and only returned to Hamburg in 1952, where she died on May 17, 1962 at the age of 84. Her brother Friedrich lost his teaching license and his position at the St. Georg hospital due to his Jewish descent based on the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums. As a result, he emigrated to Portugal as early as 1933 and from there on to the United States, where he worked as a physician and medical researcher. Unlike his sister, Friedrich Wohlwill did not return to Hamburg – he died in the USA in 1958 at the age of 76. He is remembered with a Stumbling Stone [Stolperstein] laid in front of Hamburg’s University Medical Center. In addition, a building of the St. Georg Hospital has borne his name since 1999.
Eugen Fraenkel died in Hamburg on December 20, 1925 at the age of 72. He himself did not live to see the National Socialists rise to power, who destroyed his tomb at the Ohlsdorf cemetery in 1938. However, his family was defenselessly exposed to the reprisals and persecution of the Nazi system: His oldest son Max, who was also a physician in Hamburg, took his own life in 1938 – probably also to protect his “Aryan” wife and his two children. Fraenkel’s daughter Margarethe was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, and her (ex-) husband, the physician Paul Kuttner, died in Theresienstadt in 1943. Their two children survived the Shoah – their daughter Annemarie in a hideout in Berlin, their son Paul in England, where he had arrived in 1939 on a children’s transport. Eugen Fraenkel’s wife, Marie (née Deutsch), was also deported to Theresienstadt, where she died at the age of 82 in 1943. Only the youngest son of Eugen and Marie Fraenkel, Hans, who worked as a journalist, was able to escape persecution by the National Socialists and lived with his wife and son in Italy, France and Switzerland before and during the Second World War. He died in 1971 in Zurich. In Hamburg, Stumbling Stones [Stolpersteine] commemorate Eugen Fraenkel’s wife Marie and his son Max. In Berlin, Stumbling Stones were laid for his daughter Margarethe and his son-in-law, Paul Kuttner.
The painting presented here is significant for the history of Hamburg for several reasons: 1) It portrays an exceptional physician and pathologist who rendered outstanding services to the city both in fighting the cholera epidemic of 1892 and in founding Hamburg’s medical faculty at the end of the First World War. 2) Gretchen Wohlwill, who painted Fraenkel’s portrait, was a well-known Hamburg artist and one of only few women artists in the Hamburg Secession. 3) Studying the biographies of members of the Fraenkel and Wohlwill families exposes National Socialism as an ideology geared towards persecution, expulsion and annihilation of human beings. 4) The painting is exemplary for the multitude of works of art banned from public view by the National Socialists.
In the meantime, the oil portrait has found an appropriate place in the Museum for the History of Medicine in Hamburg. It hangs in the former pathology building planned for Fraenkel on the grounds of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf. In the district of Barmbek-Nord, Fraenkelstrasse was named after Eugen Fraenkel.
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Benjamin Kuntz, Dr. P.H. (Public Health), born 1985, Public Health researcher at Robert Koch Institute Berlin. Member of Berlin Society for the History of Medicine. Author of various biographies of Jewish physicians.
Benjamin Kuntz, Eugen Fraenkel: Hamburg’s most important pathologist (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, December 21, 2020. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-269.en.v1> [April 01, 2023].