Clara von Simson completed her Habilitation in physics at Technische Universität Berlin, the first woman to do so

She was, as the saying went back then, the daughter of a good family. Born 1907 in Rome, Clara von Simson enjoyed a modern and emancipated upbringing, despite spending her childhood and early adolescence in the highly authoritarian German Empire. Her parents granted her the same rights as her brothers and she was later free to make her own choice of career. She decided to study physics and chemistry, completing her degree in 1923 at the Berliner Universität (today Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), where she was taught by four Nobel Prize winners, namely Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Max von Laue and Walter Nernst. When she completed her doctorate, a glittering academic career seemed to await her.

But for Clara, daughter of a German-Jewish family, an ominous date was to put an end to that: 30 January 1933 - the date the Nazis came to power. The family had been baptized in the Christian faith for four generations, making them “mixed-race” or “racially inferior”, in the terminology of the Nazis, and as such “unworthy” of an academic career. Suddenly her family, who had been the epitome of the democratically-minded cultural middle class, was regarded as the incarnation of an “exaggeratedly Jewish intellectualism”.

A world without the horrors of war and the extermination of humans

Clara von Simson did not, however, resign herself to her fate. She drew upon her strength, intelligence and the cunning of the oppressed to fight for her survival. And survive she did. When her brother and his wife and child were killed in a bombing attack, she assumed responsibility for the two surviving children. The will to live Clara von Simson demonstrated in these inimical times were deserving of the highest human respect.

After 1945 and all the destruction wrought by the war, she still chose to remain in Berlin. She wanted to build up a new world there, one in which the horrors of war and the extermination of humans would have no part. In fall 1947, Clara von Simson was given a position as senior assistant in the department of physical chemistry at Technische Universität Berlin (a “token woman” as she laconically observed). A stay abroad as a student at the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford in 1949/50 helped her gain the knowledge denied to her by her exclusion from university life during the Nazi era. It also helped her to prepare the experimental foundations for her Habilitation. She completed her Habilitation in 1951, and the following year took up work as a freelance lecturer and became a member of the Academic Senate at Technische Universität Berlin.

Bringing together technical thinking and humanistic education

It was important for her that the newly-established Technische Universität Berlin combine technical thinking and humanistic education in its teaching plan. She was politically active in the FDP, particularly in the area of equal opportunities for women. As aware of her capabilities as she was, she was also critical of her own academic abilities. She set herself the highest standards and was under no illusions regarding her achievements. In August 1952 she was offered the directorship of the Lette Verein in Berlin, a vocational training institute for young women. In this capacity she worked for the modernization of the Lette schools, particularly for the introduction of high-quality courses for skilled trades. As an FDP representative in the state parliament, she was closely involved in the drafting of the Berlin university act and was made honorary senator of Berlin in 1966.

In 1963 she reached pensionable age, but remained active within the board of trustees of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, the Women’s Association and in her capacity as Alderwoman of the City of Berlin. In 1967 she was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Clara von Simson died on 26 January 1983. She was buried in the family grave in the Jerusalem Cemetery on Mehringdamm in the Berlin borough of Kreuzberg. She was accorded a grave of honor by the city of Berlin: The von Simsons had rendered outstanding services to the city for over four generations.