Elisabeth von Knobelsdorff was the first woman to enroll for an engineering degree at Technische Hochschule Berlin

Born 17 June 1877, von Knobelsdorff became the first woman to leave Technische Hochschule zu Berlin with the title "Diplomingenieurin”. More than 100 years ago, Elisabeth von Knobelsdorff enrolled as a guest auditor, as it was not possible for women to enroll as students at that time. Only in 1909, following a ministerial decree, were women permitted to enroll to study at Königlich Technische Hochschule zu Berlin.

The female student as exotic

In this year she became the first woman to take her intermediate Diplom. When she completed her degree with the grade “good” in 1911, the journal “Bauwelt” greeted this sensation with a headline whose grammar in the original German reveals to an even greater extent the confusion regarding the role of women this caused: “.....It is the first woman to achieve the title of Diplomingenieur as an architect”.

Whereas the Züricher Polytechnikum began admitting female students as early as 1871, the proportion of female students at German technical universities had only reached somewhere between one and two percent in 1914. A female student was regarded as something “exotic”.

Some men, such as art critic Karl Scheffler, claimed to be able to prove that women were not suited to the study of architecture or technology. Even the great Adolf Slaby, who wrote a poem on “the woman as engineer”, maintained that women would do better to pursue their interests at home rather than at university. As Elisabeth von Knobelsdorff proved, however, this was an error in thinking on the part of men.

From guest auditor to student

Born in Potsdam, she received an elite education, attending an English boarding school and receiving private tuition in Latin and mathematics before going on to a conservatory. She completed her Abitur at the Realgymnasium in Munich in 1906. Her main interest was in architecture. In 1908 - while still a guest auditor at the Königlich Technische Hochschule zu Berlin - she started working in the Charlottenburg office of her friend Emilie Winkelmann, the first German female architect. In 1912, she became the first full female member of the Association of Engineers and Architects.

“Fräulein Dipl.-Ing.”

All this was not without its controversy. But “Fräulein Dipl.-Ing”, her official German academic title as a female engineering graduate, persevered to achieve her aims. Before the First World War she participated in competitions and exhibitions, particularly those which sought to promote the role of women in society. The First World War meant that women’s labor was suddenly needed. As military architect with the rank of lieutenant, Elisabeth was in charge of the construction of the military infrastructure in Döberitz. Among the buildings she constructed were the “Knobelsdorff barracks”, laid out on a triangular groundplan. Later she was employed to construct military buildings in Belgium. The period 1914 to 1924 was not a good one for civil construction. War and inflation reduced the role of the architect. Despite this, Elisabeth von Knobelsdorff succeeded in becoming Potsdam’s first government architect in 1921. During this period she designed monuments to those killed in action. In 1922 she married legation councilor Kurt von Tippelskirch. This marked the end of her career in the service of the state in 1923. She was now regarded officially as a ”provided for married woman“ and was released from her contract. She then worked on a freelance basis. 

Emigration to the USA

In 1930 she took part in the exhibition entitled “Die gestaltende Frau” organized in Berlin by the German association of women citizens. By now she was already living in the USA with her husband who was consul in Boston from 1927-1938. Due to political differences with the Nazi regime, Kurt von Tippelskirch was recalled to Germany in 1938. The couple withdrew to live on an estate in Silesia. A tragic fate befell them there in 1945. Tippelskirch was deported to Siberia where he died. Elisabeth von Knobbelsdorff lost her home as a result of being deported. She passed her final years in a home for women in Bassum near Bremen. She continued to dedicate herself to cultural projects. She died largely forgotten on 20. 4. 1959. Her grave was located until 1989 in the cemetery in Bassum. In recent years her life and work have received new interest as a result of women's studies.