Abridged from original article by Frank W. Stahnisch, MD, MSc, PhD published 29 October 2017 in World Neurology Vol 32 No. 5, History of Neurology


Following WWII, many institutes of brain research were destroyed; bringing them back has been a matter of dedication to reconstruction

World War II drew to a close in Europe on May 8, 1945. Many institutes for brain research, psychology, and psychiatry of the former Kaiser Wilhelm Society (KWG) were destroyed. Numerous scientists and scholars had died or were forced into exile in America, Britain, and elsewhere around the globe, where they found new working environments after the Nazis had seized political power 12 years before.

Institute estates, scientific instruments, and large quantities of archival material had been put on trucks and train carts, making their way to the allied occupation zones of West Germany and evading the Soviet zone in the East.

A prominent example is the former Institute for Brain Research of the KWG, headed by neuroanatomist Oskar Vogt (1870-1959) and his wife Cécile Vogt-Mugnier (1875-1962). The institute was scattered over as many places as Bochum, Cologne, Duesseldorf, Dillenburg/Giessen, and Frankfurt am Main.

Nobody knew anymore how science had to be done; they were all away! There was no other alternative than to go to the United States, in order to develop oneself intellectually.
A former director of the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology, interview with author (Nov. 14, 2003; transl. FWS)
The Max Planck Institute for Brain Research
The Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, ca. 1962. Courtesy of Max Planck Society.

Since the new founding of the Max Planck Society (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft or MPG) in 1948, many questions were posed regarding the reconstruction of destroyed research buildings, brain research laboratories, and pathology collections during the postwar period.

Despite the strenuous effort of coming to terms with the past ("Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung") of the KWG and its problematic research tendencies (such as in eugenics, inherited nervous diseases, and military-related neurophysiological research) in the wider field of neurology and psychiatry, most of these processes were similarly embedded in the contemporary histories of the Federal Republic of Germany and even Western Europe. 

Profound reforms and research consolidation emanated between 1972 and 1990, triggered by prevailing economic and energy crises, to finally lead to an advanced growth after German reunification and an increasing process of globalization in Western industrialized countries (1990-2002).

The general reconstruction process in and of the neurosciences, behavioural sciences, and cognitive sciences in the Max Planck Society was, however, not determined through research priorities alone. Considerations for training junior staff were equally as important. It received important attention through MPG leadership that tried to rebuild its international linkages to catch up with the world level in neuroscience research.


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