The Making of Max Planck

By Elie Dolgin

In 1945, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, Germany's premier science research institution, was in tatters. It was even at risk of being axed after the Second World War, but leading German scientists convinced the allies to rebuild and rebrand the renowned research organization. So an 86- year-old Max Planck once again assumed the presidency, after the Nazi regime forced him from the post in 1937. As part of the society's makeover, Planck, the founder of quantum theory, offered his own name. In 1946, he served as the first honorary president of the Max Planck Society (MPS) during its early development in postwar Germany's British zone.

Planck, however, passed away less than a year before the society's first official meeting in February 1948 in Göttingen. At that time, his eponymous society comprised only 25 small institutes with a combined budget of around $5-6 million...

How did it get there? First, the MPS was instrumental in rebuilding postwar Germany at a time when much of the country's infrastructure was destroyed, says Bernd Wirsing, chief MPS spokesperson. "The universities at that point were not able to provide what government and business needed, which was technological and industrial progress," he says. However, the MPS did not pander to industry and the government. The Nazi era highlighted the political threat to freedom of research, so from the beginning, the MPS safeguarded its autonomy to pursue questions of basic science.

Today, the German federal and state governments finance more than 80% of the society's budget, but the founding statutes stipulate that the MPS "is an association of free research institutes, which belong neither to the state nor to industry." Germany's postindustrial, knowledge-based economy is now one of the largest in Europe, thanks in part to the MPS.

The MPS was instrumental in rebuilding postwar Germany at a time when much of the country's infrastructure was destroyed.

Some of the most notable discoveries to come out of the MPS's model include: Feoder Lynen of the Institute for Biochemistry deduced the cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism pathway in the 1950's; Georges Köhler of the Institute for Immunobiology invented monoclonal antibodies in 1974; Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard at the Institute for Developmental Biology pioneered the study of mutagenesis in Drosophila embryos in 1980; and Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann at the Institute of Biophysical Chemistry proved the existence of single-ion channels in 1974 (see p. 84 for related story).

But the MPS is not without its darker side as well. In 1999, then-president Hubert Markl launched a six-year, $5 million independent inquiry into the society's support of the Nazi regime's policies. The inquiry found that scientists at Kaiser Wilhelm institutes used samples and slave labor from concentration camp victims, helped develop Nazi weaponry, and plundered Soviet seed banks during the war. It also indicated that the Nobel-Prize winning biochemist Adolf Butenandt, who served as MPS president from 1960 to 1972, knew that scientists at his Institute for Biochemistry used blood samples from Auschwitz victims. Markl issued a formal apology to the victims of Nazi war atrocities in 2001.

Now, the MPS is looking forward. "Internationalization is a crucial principle today," says Wirsing. The society already has three non-German institutes, one in Holland and two in Italy, and is looking to expand even farther. The first non-European institute in development is a bioimaging center planned for Florida, and Wirsing says the MPS is looking into options in India and China. But after 60 years of scientific excellence, getting old is on the mind, and the MPS's newest institute is planned for closer to home. In September, the Max Planck Institute for the Biology of Aging will open in Cologne.

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