1899–The Coroner of New York Advises His Young Cousin to Stay in Europe

Letter from NY Coroner Emil Hoeber to Rudolf Höber, March 24, 1899

I have had this charming letter for many years, but only recently deciphered its old script with the invaluable help of my cousin, Britta Fischer.  The letter is in German, but the author had lived in New York for nearly 40 years when he wrote it.  It reveals an incident in my family’s history that I never knew about.

Emil Höber (1832-1906) came to New York from Karlsruhe just before the Civil War.  Trained as a doctor in Germany, Emil became Coroner of New York in 1898.  My grandfather, Rudolf Höber, was the son of Emil’s first cousin and grew up in Stettin.  By 1899, Rudolf had completed his own medical studies at the University of Erlangen and had begun his career as a research scientist in human cellular physiology.  Apparently he wrote to his uncle Emil (whom he had never met) and asked advice about moving to the United States.  In this letter, Emil tells Rudolf that scientific research is not as well supported in America as in Europe and that American scientists were not as well regarded.  He urges Rudolf to remain in Europe.  Lacking Emil’s encouragement, Rudolf decided not to emigrate, and continued his research in Switzerland and Germany for the next 35 years.

In addition to giving advice to Rudolf, in this letter Emil reviews the monumental advances in medical science over his lifetime.  Here is the translated letter:

612 Lex. Ave., New York, 24 March 1899

My Dear Rudolf,

I was extremely pleased to receive your letter, and many thanks as well for the paper that you sent me.  I must admit – and you will understand when I remind you that I studied medicine between 1852 and 1857 – that my chemical/physiological knowledge is not sufficiently developed to be able to follow you.  I have made an honest attempt to stay au courant with the advancements in our science, but a practicing physician and a very busy man cannot do everything, so I gave up on chemistry and microscopy a long time ago and manage as best I can.  It is now possible to decide things without understanding chemical formulas, and one can have blood and urine tests conducted by specialists and make do with their results.  Your understanding of the history of medicine will tell you what colossal changes it has experienced in the last 50 years.  I began my studies in Göttingen in 1852.  Thermometers for measuring the temperature of blood were unknown; bacteria had not been discovered; I remember a 2 hour long lecture by Pfeiffer in Munich on “whether and under what circumstances one could risk treating a case of pneumonia without bleeding the patient“; blood transfusions (and intravenous saline) were terra incognita; salicylic acid was not around yet, nor was cocaine; and even less present was Lister’s great work on antisepsis.  These are only a few examples;  our science really only became a science in these years – if indeed it is one even now in connection with medical therapy.  Wohler’s Chemistry is not recognizable in its subsequent editions; Chelin’ Chirugie is today pretty much not worth the paper it is printed on; and a book dealer told me recently that my edition of Virchow’s Cellular Pathology (2nd edition 1859) is no longer of any value whatsoever.  Maybe these remarks will be of interest to you.

Now for a different topic!  Do not aspire to any American professorship!  I could write books about that!  I adore America, even though I am not satisfied with my level of success here – but that is mostly my own fault.  But a man of science – like you – is better off somewhere else,where he occupies a higher position and receives greater recognition.  And the difference in salary is offset by the difference in the cost of living, if not completely then almost.  But on balance the difference is not great enough to be decisive and not great enough to make up for other differences.  You will not find the scholarly scientific atmosphere of German and Swiss universities here!  Based on my experience, you are assured of a professorship, and if you take Rosenthal as an example of how not to do it then your career is assured.  You should look for a rich girl – there are nice rich girls – then your security is assured for life.  That is important – in fact it is the most important thing.  In my opinion, if the drive to acquire scientific knowledge is not constrained by concerns over where the next meal is coming from, then its wings can never be clipped.

If, in spite of my opinion, you still want me to, I will see what Dr. A. Jacobi, Dr. Knapp and Dr. [illegible] here think about it.  I would have to show them your paper, or perhaps you could send it to them directly:               Dr. A. Jacobi 110 W. 34th St;    Dr. H. Knapp 26 W 40th St

You surely know them by name.  But – I am almost certain that they will agree with me.

I recently read with great interest the summary report about your man Schlatter’s almost [illegible] stomach resection in the local Medical Record and you probably have that in your medical library.

Unfortunately since I began writing this answer I mislaid your letter, and so I do not know if I have answered all of its contents.  If you have time, please write me again.  Connecting with young people is good for old people – and perhaps I can be of some use to you in some connection.  If you want to know something or to get something from here, just ask and I am at your disposal.

In the meantime, I wish you continuing success!  Please greet those near to you and stay well.  This is the wish of your cousin

Dr. E. W. Hoeber

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3 Comments on “1899–The Coroner of New York Advises His Young Cousin to Stay in Europe”

  1. Patrick Hennessy says:

    Very cool, Frank!

    Patrick Hennessy

  2. Sally says:

    Fascinating letter. In hindsight, of course, it was bad advice, but at the time he was right. Of course, scientific and medical research in the US was just on the verge of exploding, but even at its high point the social status of professors has never equaled that in Germany. And who could have predicted in 1899 the bloodbath of WWI that would haunt the rest of the century and beyond?

    • Frank Hoeber says:

      Even with hindsight, I don’t think Rudolf would have considered Emil’s advice bad in terms of what was most important to him: bioscience. In his next thirty years in Europe, Rudolf was given access to the most modern technology, tremendous laboratory support and close contact with an international community of creative and energetic scientists. For ten years after this letter (1899-1909), Rudolf was supported by the scientific faculty at the University of Zurich, then one of the centers of basic research in cellular chemistry. He continued his research for 25 more years (1909-1934) at the University of Kiel, where the Physiological Institute had the best laboratory facilities in Europe. He and his co-workers there changed the way the functioning of living organisms was understood. When the Nazis drove him out of Germany in 1933, Rudolf’s regret was not over the loss of status but over the loss of laboratory facilities and research assistants — essential to his continued advances in the science of cells.


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