Nikolay Timofeev-Ressovsky - Career - in Germany

In Germany

Once at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Hirnforschung (KWIH Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research ), Vogt and Timofeev-Resovskij began implementing the other half of the scientific agreement with Russia. In 1929 Timofeev-Resovskij became director of the Abteilung für Experimentelle Genetik (Department of Experimental Genetics). In 1930, the KWIH moved to its new facility in Berlin-Buch, which was partly financed by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The KWIH, with its departments of Neuroanatomy (Oskar and Cécile Vogt), neurohistology (Alois Kronmüller), Neurochemistry (Marthe Vogt), and genetics (Nikolaij and Elena Timofeev-Resovskij), and its hospital, the KWIH was one of the largest and most modern research facilities of its kind in the entire world. The research conducted in the genetics department, along with the permanent seminar on genetics organized by Timofeev-Resovskij, drew many young postdoctoral researchers who would ultimately become prominent scientists and the department gained the status of an institute; while Timofeev-Resovskij remained a citizen of the Soviet Union for his entire stay in Germany, his status and that of his department were recognized by the fact that he was appointed, in 1938, to the position of scientific member of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gesellschaft. Timofeev-Resovskij’s colleagues in his department included his wife Elena Aleksandrovana Timofeeva-Resovskaja, his Russian colleague Sergei Tsarapkin, the physician and radiation biologist Alexander Catsch (Katsch), the radiochemist Hans-Joachim Born, and the physicist and radiation biologist Karl Zimmer; a technical assistant, Natasha (Natalie) Kromm, was from Russia. Timofeev-Resovskij also collaborated with other eminent scientists including the nuclear chemist Nikolaus Riehl, who was the scientific director of the industrial corporation Auergesellschaft and the biophysicist Max Delbrück, who had studied physics under Niels Bohr and Max Born. Others drawn to Timofeev-Resovskij’s department who would go on to become prominent scientists included Hans Bauer and Andriano Buzzati-Traverso. Through 20 years of collaboration with these and many others, Timofeev-Resovskij authored or coauthored over 100 papers written in German, English, Russian, and French. In addition to those already mentioned, Timofeev-Resovskij’s scientific circle included the physicists William Astbury, Niels Bohr, P. A. M. Dirac, Pascual Jordan, and Erwin Schrödinger, and the biologists Torbjörn Caspersson, C. D. Darlington, Theodosij Dobzhans’skij, Boris Ephrussi, Åke Gustafsson, J. B. S. Haldane, Hermann Joseph Muller, Nikolai Vavilov, and Vladimir Vernadsky.

Timofeev-Resovskij’s second son was born on 9 April 1927.

Together with the French geneticist of Russian origin, Boris Ephrussi, and with the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation, Timofeev-Resovskij organized an annual conference on biophysics, genetics, and radiation biology. This even continued right up to the start of World War II in 1939.

In 1932, Timofeev-Resovskij attended the 6th International Congress of Genetics, which was held in Ithaca, New York. While there, he formed a friendly relationship with the plant geneticist Nikolaj Vavilov, who was President of the Soviet Adcademy of Agricultural Sciences.

Timofeev-Resovskij stayed in Germany even after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. That the Gestapo or the Schutzstaffel (SS) did not give him trouble as a citizen of the Soviet Union is all the more remarkable since Vogt was harassed by the National Socialists for reasons which could have translated into trouble for Timofeev-Resovskij. On the evening of 15–16 March 1933, members of the Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers) raided Vogt’s villa on the grounds of the KWIH. The action had been taken in response to a denunciation by M. H. Fischer, a physiologist at the Institute, who was seeking to rise in the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, National Socialist Workers Party). The accusations against Vogt included making payments to the Communist Party, maintaining connections to Russia, tolerating Communist staff members, and dismissing National Socialist staff members. Not too many years later, Timofeev-Resovskij’s eldest son Dmitrij, a student at the Humboldt University of Berlin, was arrested in the spring of 1943 for being a member of the Berlin Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and making contact with Russian prisoners of war during World War II. He was sent to the German concentration camp in Mauthausen and executed by the Gestapo on 1 May 1945.

In 1935, Timofeev-Resovskij published the major work, Über die Natur der Genmutation und der Genstruktur, with Karl Zimmer, and Max Delbrück; it was considered to be a major advance in understanding the nature of gene mutation and gene structure. The work was a keystone in the formation of molecular genetics. It was also an inspirational starting point for Erwin Schrödinger’s thinking, a course of lectures in 1943, and the eventual writing of the book What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell.

In 1937, Timofeev-Resovskij and Tsarapkin were ordered back to Russia by the Soviet government. Going back to Russia was deemed impossible, as they would have to abandon their equipment and work in progress, as well as their students. Also, once back in Russia and under the political distortions of science and agriculture due to Lysenkoism, they would, at best, have to disparage the work they had accomplished in the preceding 15 years. At the worst, they could be subject to the same fate as many geneticists under Lysenkoism who had been arrested, sent to the Gulag and eventually died or were executed. In 1929, for example, Timofeev-Resovskij’s former teacher Chetverikov had been arrested and exiled. In this light, they decided definitely not to return to Russia and they became non-returnees, but otherwise remained patriotic citizens of Russia.

Also in 1937, while Oskar Vogt had been director of the KWIH since 1919, he was dismissed from his position by the National Socialists; he then became director of the Institut für Hirnforschung und allgemeine Biologie (Institute of Brain Research and General Biology) in Neustadt/Schwarzwald. That same year, the Rockefeller Foundation extended an invitation to Timofeev-Resovskij to become head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science. Timofeev-Resovskij declined the offer, but he had used it to negotiate improved terms for himself and his department at the KWIH.

Starting in 1944, in order to minimize the possibility of casualties due to Allied air raids and to also avoid falling into the hands of the Russians, all departments at the KWIH, except for Timofeev-Resovskij’s were evacuated from Berlin-Buch to Dillenburg, and later on to Giessen and Göttingen. Timofeev-Resovskij chose to remain in Berlin and await the Russians. He, as well as other German scientists, speculated that the Russian need for scientists would make collaboration with them better than with the Americans, who had far less of a need.

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