Nobel Prize and Jail Time

One of the complaints voiced by Domagk in his letter of May 26, 1943, to

I.G. Farben management concerned credit for the development of Prontosil and thus for initiation of research on and use of the sulfa drugs. Domagk's letter, and articles in the German medical press about this time, reflect tensions between Domagk, who insisted on the medical research findings as decisive, and Mietzsch and Klarer, who claimed at least an equal role as those responsible for the synthesis of the compounds. At stake were both reputation outside the company and monetary recompense within it. Although the war reduced the possibilities of both kinds of reward, the chemists already had ample grounds for sensitivity on the issue. By the beginning of the war, Domagk had gained the lion's share of credit in the eyes of the world outside the company for introduction of the sulfa drugs. The outbreak of the war in September 1939 interrupted Domagk's preparations to travel to Edinburgh in October to accept the University's Cameron Prize and to deliver the associated lectures, and on October 26 he learned of the Nobel committee's decision to award him the 1939 Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for recognition of the antibacterial properties of Prontosil."19

Domagk's Nobel award created yet another point of friction between the National Socialist state and the Elberfeld research establishment. In 1936, the German pacifist writer Carl von Ossietzky, then in a concentration camp for opposition to the regime, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Infuriated, Hitler had issued a decree forbidding any German to accept a Nobel Prize. Ossi-etzky died in the camp in 1938, but the decree remained in force. In that year, Do-magk was nominated by French and American scientists for the prize in physiology or medicine. At least in the case of the French nominator, P. Maré of the Pasteur Institute, a second, non-German name was also submitted in view of the widely publicized prohibition by the German government. The Nobel committee deferred a decision on Domagk, in part because of insufficient clinical documentation on use of the sulfa drugs in Sweden, in part in the hope that talks then under way between Hitler and representatives of other states would lead to an improvement in the international situation. Those hopes were dashed in 1939. The president of the Nobel committee, G. Liljestrand, sounded out German colleagues regarding the prohibition but received only private expressions of regret. The committee's vice president, F. Henschen, who had known Domagk personally for fifteen years, wrote directly to Hermann Goring asking him to use his influence on Domagk's behalf. The result of this appeal, and of news of the situation passed to the German ambassador in Stockholm, was a telegram from the German minister of education to the Swedish foreign minister stating that the award of a Nobel Prize to a German citizen was "entirely unwelcome" (durchaus unerwünscht). After consulting the Swedish foreign minister, the Nobel committee met on October 26 and decided in spite of the position of the German government to award the 1939 prize to Domagk. Two Germans, Kuhn and Adolf Butenandt, also shared the 1939 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.20

Domagk learned of the Nobel committee's decision the same day, first by a call from a Swedish journalist in Berlin, then by an official telegram from Stockholm. By his own account he was taken completely by surprise, as was the government. A few hours later the German Foreign Office called, asking whether he had indeed received the Nobel Prize and whether he had accepted it. Congratulations and messages from well-wishers began to flow in from all over the world. Only in Germany, where the news could not be reported, was there silence, with the exception of a few individuals who had heard of Domagk's award from foreign radio broadcasts.21

Domagk now found himself in a dilemma. He consulted Hörlein, who reminded him of the prohibition against acceptance of a Nobel Prize, and who advised him how to apply to the Education Ministry. Domagk did so, asking the ministry if the prohibition applied to science prizes as well as to the peace prize. At the same time, acting as a member of the faculty of the University of Münster, Domagk informed the rector and the medical faculty of the award of the prize to him and within a few days received the faculty's official congratulations. When, by November 3, he had no response from the Education Ministry, Domagk sent a carefully worded letter of thanks to Gunnar Holmgren, the rector of the Caroline Institute:

I most gratefully acknowledge your telegram and the subsequent letter of confirmation from Professor Liljestrand informing me that the 1939 Nobel Prize for Physiology and [sic] Medicine has been awarded to me for my research in the field of the chemotherapy of bacterial infections. This recognition of my work has pleased me very much, and I warmly thank you and the members of the Caroline Institute in Stockholm. Since, so far as I know, existing law does not permit German citizens to accept the Prize, I must first inquire about the particulars, and attend to the exact basis of this law. Since this is taking longer than I hoped, I must ask you to excuse the delay in my reply. Apart from that, I still hope that at some time I will have the opportunity in Stockholm of speaking to Swedish circles interested in my field of work, and thereby rendering small thanks for the recognition accorded my work. Whether it will be possible for me to come to Stockholm already on December 10, I cannot now say. I will give you more information as soon as I am able.

With best collegial greetings.

Yours respectfully, G. Domagk22

Domagk had been warned by Hörlein that such a letter might have grave consequences but had not taken the advice too seriously and had written other letters of thanks to those who had sent congratulations. On November 17, his house was suddenly surrounded by Gestapo agents, with weapons drawn. Two agents entered the house, placed Domagk under arrest without explanation, and confiscated all his papers having to do with the Nobel Prize, including foreign newspaper clippings. Domagk was taken to the Wuppertal police station, his personal belongings were taken from him, and he was placed in an isolated cell. In the midst of his fear and anger, the absurdity of the situation was brought home by an incident that occurred during the first night of captivity. One of the jailers, making his rounds, asked Domagk why he was there. Domagk replied, "Because I have received the Nobel Prize." The guard said nothing, but on meeting a fellow guard near Domagk's cell, said to him "In that cell we have a crazy man." The next day Domagk was interrogated at length, in the presence of a high officer of the SS from Düsseldorf, regarding the events leading up to the award of the Nobel Prize. Domagk spent a week in jail, during which he was befriended by the local police commissioner, who arranged for a more comfortable cell and for Domagk's wife to bring him food. Hörlein worked with his usual energy to obtain Domagk's freedom. He was released with only the vague explanation for his arrest that his letter to Sweden had been too friendly. Later he learned from a physician acquaintance with contacts in the NSDAP, a Professor Wirtz in Munich, that Hitler had been incensed by Domagk's Nobel award. When none of his medical entourage could inform him about Domagk's work, Hitler assumed that he had gained the prize through some kind of forbidden international connections and ordered his immediate arrest.23

The Gestapo was not through with Domagk. Shortly after his release from jail, he was arrested again as he arrived in Berlin to speak about his research to an international medical congress. In police presence, he was forced to sign a document forbidding him to give the lecture. His intended audience was told that the speaker was incapacitated by illness. To obtain his release he was also forced to sign a second document, this time a letter to the Caroline Institute refusing the Nobel Prize. This letter differed sharply from the first in wording and tone:

23 November 1939

In my letter of the third of this month I already mentioned that as far as I know German citizens are not permitted by law to accept a Nobel Prize. When I wrote this letter, however, the situation of this prohibition and the circumstances leading to it were not yet known to me. Only now have I become aware that in fall 1936 the Nobel committee in Oslo awarded the peace prize to Carl von Ossietzky, who had been convicted of treason, and that the international demonstration against National Socialist Germany contained in this award was the occasion for a special order of the Führer and Reich Chancellor in which the above-mentioned prohibition was made known.

Under these circumstances I must ask that you look upon my letter of the third of this month, which was sent without knowledge of the actual state of affairs, as not having been written. I regret that I can no longer view the decision of the Caroline Institute as an honorific recognition of my work, but must rather assume that the Institute, which was undoubtedly aware of the basis of the German prohibition, expected me simply to disregard this prohibition. Such a disregard would be for every German like an act of disloyalty, which I must obviously put far from myself. I therefore feel myself compelled hereby to refuse acceptance of the Prize.

G. Domagk

Although this letter was presented to Domagk in the Education Ministry in Berlin, he was required to post it in police headquarters in Wuppertal so as to preserve the appearance of a voluntary act. From this time until the end of the war, Domagk lived with the consciousness that he was always under surveillance and that further suspicions of his actions might endanger both himself and his family.24

Figure 5.4. Gerhard Domagk, oil portrait by his friend, the painter Otto Dix, 1953 (reprinted courtesy of the Bayer Archive).
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