My Grandfather’s Pearl Stickpin – 1918

Regular readers of this website may know that, for me, photographs, documents and objects are bridges across time.  In this case, a picture and a pearl connect me to my family as it was nearly a century ago.

A German historian contacted me recently and asked for a photograph of my grandfather, Rudolf Höber, around 1915.  That’s when Rudolf became Professor and Director of the Physiological Institute at the University of Kiel.  I don’t have an individual portrait of him in 1915, but I found this great family portrait taken in February 1918.

The Höber Family, February 1918. Rudolf Höber surrounded by, from left, Ursula, Josephine, Johannes, Gabriele.

The Höber Family, Kiel, Germany, February 1918. Rudolf Höber surrounded by, from left, Ursula, Josephine, Johannes, Gabriele.

The parents and their three children all look somewhat gloomy, but serious portraits were the fashion of the day.  At the time the picture was taken, scientists came from as far away as Japan to study with Rudolf at the Physiological Institute, despite the fact that it was the middle of World War I.  The sailor suit my father is wearing in the picture was typical for German school boys then and later. It was particularly appropriate in Kiel, which had a huge naval installation.  A few months after this picture was taken, Johannes, 14, was on his way home from his Gymnasium when he witnessed the shooting that marked the mutiny of the German naval forces, starting the German Revolution of 1918.

When the photograph was cropped to pull out the portrait of Rudolf the historian had requested, I noticed something. In the center of the knot of Rudolf’s tie is a pearl stickpin.

Prof. Rudolf Höber, Kiel, February 1918.

Prof. Rudolf Höber, Kiel, February 1918.

When Rudolf died in 1952, the pearl stickpin passed to my father, Johannes.  And when Johannes died in 1977 the pearl stickpin passed to me.

My grandfather's pearl stickpin.

My grandfather’s pearl stickpin.

Although it is not particularly fashionable today, I still try to find occasion to wear the stickpin once in a while.

Wearing my grandfather's pearl stickpin - 2016.

Wearing my grandfather’s pearl stickpin – 2016.

More stories about the Hoeber family are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available here. Also available at

Aunt Ursula’s Portable Needle Boiler

Ursula Hober's Chrome-Plated Sterilizer (c. 1940) at Full Boil.

My father’s sister, Ursula Hober, came to the United States in 1934.  She got her medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937, and over the next 30 years developed a large general practice in West Philadelphia.  A large proportion of her patients were lower income families — both African American and white — to whom she was available for house calls day and night.  She billed her patients, of course, but only once.  If the patient did not pay, Ursula ignored the bill.  She thought that her patients should not be deprived of care just because they couldn’t afford to pay.

In those days, many general practitioners also functioned as obstetricians, and I was one of the babies Ursula delivered.  When I was a kid, she would come to our house to give me and my brother vaccine injections, in addition to coming when a member of the family had a cold or a stomach ache.

Ursula also gave injections to all the kids of the families in her practice.  At that time, needles for injections were not disposable as they are today, but would be sterilized and reused.  Sometimes Ursula would visit a patient and discover that there were kids in the family who had not gotten their immunizations.  She would then give all of them the shots they needed all at once.   If  Ursula did not have enough sterile needles with her, she would pull out this little portable boiler, sterilize her needles and continue giving the necessary shots.

This gadget folds into a small self-contained box about 2 inches by 2 1/2 inches.  At the bottom is an alcohol lamp with a screw-on cap.  At the top is a little reservoir for water.  Light the lamp, wait for the water to boil, put a couple of needles in, boil for a few minutes and back to work.