Partners in Science

Josephine Marx Höber and Rudolf Höber in their Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania, 1934

Long before women were generally accepted in the medical profession and the sciences, my grandmother, Josephine, joined my grandfather, Rudolf, as a full research collaborator in the field of cellular biochemistry and human physiology.

Rudolf Höber and Josephine Marx were married in 1901.  He already had his medical degree and a teaching and research position at the University of Zürich.  In 1902, when he was 29, Rudolf published The Physical Chemistry of Cells and Tissues, a major theoretical work that would go through eight editions over the next 45 years.  He also published as many as six technical articles annually documenting the results of his laboratory research.

With Rudolf’s encouragement, Josephine entered the medical school at Zürich and obtained her degree in 1909.  She was a pioneering woman in the medical profession in Europe.  Also in 1909, Rudolf and Josephine moved to Kiel, Germany, where Rudolf became professor of physiology and Director of the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel.  Although Josephine did not have an official position in the University, she was a partner and collaborator in Rudolf’s work, sharing his passion for the world of biochemistry, biophysics and the nature of cellular function.  The couple travelled to the Stazione Zoologica in Naples and to the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory to conduct research.  In the 1920’s, Josephine became an active participant in the laboratory work, and collaborated on several of the research articles Rudolf published both in German and in English.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they expelled Rudolf from his position at the University of Kiel.  Anxious to continue his life’s work, he accepted an invitation from the University of Pennsylvania to become a visiting professor at the medical school there, and he and Josephine moved to Philadelphia in 1934.  The University, however, did not provide him with the kind of laboratory, apparatus and assistance that he had had at the University of Kiel.  Although he received some financial support from American foundations, including the American Philosophical Society, Rudolf was frustrated by the limited facilities and staff available to him.  Part of the solution was that Josephine joined him in the lab on a full time basis – without pay.

Rudolf and Josephine were equal partners in the lab for many years.  The articles they wrote and published jointly continued to make findings in physiology that remain foundational in biotechnical work being done today.

Here is one of the articles Rudolf and Josephine co-authored, as published in the Journal of General Physiology:


To read the complete article, click here


Johannes Höber “Taken into Protective Custody” by the Nazis, March 13, 1933

Report of Johannes Höber’s Arrest by the Nazis, Mannheimer Tageblatt, 13 March 1933

The newspaper article pictured above comes from the Mannheimer Tageblatt, one of the major newspapers of Mannheim, a city of half a million people.  Dated March 13, 1933, the article reads as follows:


The Police Report states: Over the course of the last several days the following leaders of the SPD [Sozialistisches Partei Deutschland, or German Social Democratic Party] were taken into protective custody:

    • City Division President and State Representative Ernst Kraft,
    • Division Leader of the Reichsbanner [SPD militia] Dr. Helffenstein, dentist,
    • Dr.Höber, member of the Divisional leadership of the Reichsbanner [SPD militia],
    • District Councillors Werner and Meier and neurologist Dr. Stern.

Protective custody was imposed on Mayor Dr. Heimerich at Theresa Hospital, where he is presently located.

The following individuals upon whom protective custody has been imposed have not been located: Senator Roth, State Representative Reinhold, the editor Harpuder, the editor Dr. Schifrin, attorney Dr. Kirschner, and reporter Diamant.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.  In the rigged Reichstag election of March 5, the Nazis received a plurality (though not a majority)  of the votes cast and declared themselves rulers of the nation.  In the wake of this takeover of the national government, state and local Nazi groups attacked the seats of government in state capitols and cities throughout the country.  On March 8, local Nazis, supported by armed Storm Troopers and SS squads, forcefully drove the elected officials of Mannheim out of the city hall, burned the flag of the democratic Weimar republic in the city’s main square, and hoisted the Swastika banner on the city hall.

Johannes Höber, 29, was a promising young member of Mayor Hermann Heimerich’s Socialist administration when the Nazis seized control of the city.  He was also an activist in the German Socialist Party (Sozialistische Partei Deutschland, or SPD) and the Reichsbanner, the Socialist Party militia formed to protect Socialists from Nazi Stormtroopers.  Johannes’ “protective custody” in the city jail lasted five weeks.  At one point, Johannes and the other Socialists asked to be released.  In response, the Nazis took them to a balcony overlooking the courtyard of the jail, where a prearranged crowd of brown shirted Storm Troopers screamed for their blood, purportedly justifying the prisoners’ continued detention.

After he had been held for some time, Johannes’ father, Rudolf Höber, a professor of physiology at the University of Kiel, travelled to Mannheim to talk to the Nazi leadership there.  Rudolf negotiated a deal under which Johannes agreed to leave Mannheim and never return in exchange for his release from “protective custody.”  He and his wife, Elfriede, and his daughter, Susanne, moved to the north German city of Düsseldorf, where they lived for five years before emigrating to the United States.  In fact, Johannes did not return to Mannheim for 28 years.

Rathaus (City Hall) in Mannheim where Johannes Hoeber worked and was later imprisoned by the Nazis

A Young Physiologist, 1890

Rudolf Höber, page from microorganism notebook, c. 1890

Drawings of Hydra viridis and Podocoryne carnea by Rudolf Höber, age 17. [Click image to view full size.]

Rudolf Höber (1873-1953) was a prominent physiologist who conducted pioneering research into the electro-chemical properties of cell membranes. As an instructor at the University of Zurich, later a professor at the University of Kiel and head of the Physiological Institute there, and finally as a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he introduced many young doctors to the science of physiology.

Rudolf already became interested in biological science as a child, and started the serious study of microorganisms as a teenager. His notebook contains 83 meticulously detailed drawings of amoebae, paramecia, hydrae and the like.  This notebook is a beautiful art object as well as a record of his studies. The image above is of one double page of that notebook, which Rudolf drew at the age of about seventeen.

Rudolf Höber's Notebook, "Die Niederen Tiere" (The Lower Animals), ca. 1890

Rudolf Höber, 1890, about the time he made his drawings of microorganisms