Childhood & Early Life
Walther Gerlach was born on 1 August 1889 at Biebrich am Rhein, now a municipality in the Western Germany. His father, Valentisn Gerlach, was a doctor. His mother’s name was Marie Niederhaeuser.
In 1908, Gerlach enrolled at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen. After graduation, he began his doctoral thesis on measurement of radiation in the same university. The eminent German physicist Louis Karl Heinrich Friedrich Paschen was his doctoral advisor. He received his PhD in 1912.
Gerlach next began working for his Habilitation at the University of Tübingen. He had started working as an assistant to Paschen from 1911. In spite of working for Habilitation, he continued assisting Paschen at the laboratory.
However, all these were interrupted as the World War I broke out and Gerlach was inducted into the German Army. He now was assigned to work on wireless telegraphy under Max Wein, the director of the Institute of Physics at the University of Jena.
Later in 1916, he received his Habilitation and became a Privatdozent at the University of Tübingen and then at the Georg-August University of Göttingen. Sometime during the war he also served in the Artillerie-Prüfungs-Kommission (APK) under Rudolf Ladenburg
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Gerlach was decommissioned once the war ended in 1918. In 1919, he joined Farbenfabriken Elberfeld as the head of the physics laboratory and worked in that capacity until 1920.
In 1920, he joined the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main as a teaching assistant and a lecturer. The next year, he was appointed as the Extraordinarius Professor in the Institute of Experimental Physics in the same university.
Some time now, he met Otto Stern, who at the time was working as an assistant in the University’s Institute of Theoretical Physics. Together the two scientists began working on spin quantization.
The first experiment was conducted in 1921, using an electromagnet that enabled the magnetic field to be turned on slowly from a null value. However, in the same year Stern received his first academic post and shifted to University of Rostock. Gerlach stayed behind to complete the experiment.
in 1925, Gerlach left the University of Frankfurt to join University of Tübingen as an Ordinarius Professor. In this, he succeeded his mentor and doctoral advisor Friedrich Paschen.
In 1929, he was invited to join Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich as an Ordinarius Professor. He gladly accepted the post and remained there until 1945.
Meanwhile in 1937, as Germany began to prepare for the World War II Gerlach was inducted in the supervisory board of Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften (Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry), a scientific institute established in 1911. During the reign of Hitler, it began to conduct scientific experiments for the Nazis.
In 1939, he was elected as a Member of the Comerlin working group that dealt in ship degaussing, a process that aimed at reducing or eliminating the magnetic signature of ships. In addition, the committee also dealt in torpedo physics.
In 1944, Gerlach was officially appointed as the head of the physics section of the Reichsforschungsrat (Reich Research Council) and Bevollmächtigter of nuclear physics. In the later capacity he had the plenipotentiary or absolute power.
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On May 8, 1945, the German Instrument of Surrender was signed and with that the World War II came to an end in Europe. In the same month, Gerlach along with many other scientists was arrested by the Allied forces under Operation Alsos.
The main intention of his captors was to discover the extent of scientific development of Germany. From May to July 1945, Gerlach was interned first in France and then in Belgium.
Later on July 3, 1945 he and nine other scientists were sent to England and interned until January 3, 1946 in Farm Hall, a bugged house in Godmanchester near Cambridge under Operation Epsilon. It was suspected that these ten scientists had taken part in the development of atomic bomb by Germany.
The primary goal of Operation Epsilon was to determine how close Nazi Germany had been to constructing an atomic bomb by listening to their conversations. Therefore at Farm Hall, the scientists were allowed to talk freely and their conversation was taped by hidden microphones.
Very soon it became clear that Germany did not have any atomic bomb and therefore in January 1946, Gerlach was set free. He then returned to Germany and became a visiting professor at the University of Bonn.
In 1948, he was appointed as an Ordinarius Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Munich. Simultaneously, he also became the Director of the Physics Department and held the position until 1957. In addition, he also served as the Rector of the University from 1948 to 1951.
Concurrently, Gerlach also held many prestigious positions. In 1949, he became the founding president of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, an institute established for promotion of applied sciences and held that position till 1951.
Also in 1949, Gerlach became the vice-president of the Deutsche Gemeinschaft zur Erhaltung und Förderung der Forschung (German Association for the Support and Advancement of Scientific Research). He held the position until 1961.
In 1957, Gerlach signed Göttingen Manifesto along with seventeen other leading nuclear scientists from Germany. Through this declaration they vouched not to arm the Federal Republic of Germany with atomic weapons.