Big names: Betty Heimann

11.02.2020 von Ines Godazgar in Miscellaneous, Big Names
When Betty Heimann qualified to become a lecturer in 1923, it was still quite an extraordinary event. The law prohibiting women from becoming lecturers had only been abolished three years previously, allowing the indologist to become the first female lecturer at the University of Halle. After her appointment as an associate professor, she became “Miss Professor”.
In 2019, the “Wonderful Women Wall” emerged as a mural on Wörmlitzer Strasse in Halle. Betty Heimann can be seen in the middle of the third row from the top.
In 2019, the “Wonderful Women Wall” emerged as a mural on Wörmlitzer Strasse in Halle. Betty Heimann can be seen in the middle of the third row from the top. (Foto: Markus Scholz)

When the young Betty Heimann set her sights on becoming a scholar, times were tough. Although women – especially “young ladies” – generally had access to education, they were rarely seen at universities. Furthermore, the whole of Germany was confronted with the economic fallout of the First World War.

Betty Heimann was talented and came from a good family. Born in Wandsbek near Hamburg in 1888, she was raised as the fourth child of a Jewish banker. At the height of inflation in 1921, the classical philologist graduated with a PhD in Sanskrit from the University of Kiel. After rapid depreciation had left her destitute, she couldn’t even afford her own place to live when she arrived at the University of Halle in 1923. Nevertheless, she was given a lectureship in Indian philosophy in 1926.

When she was offered permanent accommodation at “Mühlweg 3”, her own furniture was all she owned. Although the university paid her a monthly net salary of 305.80 Reichsmark, it was hardly enough to get by, and so she asked for help in a letter addressed to the university curator, Hermann Sommer, on 19 November 1927:

“This furniture, an heirloom from my mother, is now all I own. As I was forced to cram it into storerooms during many years of destitution, it had gradually became so damaged that I unfortunately had to spend a very large sum of money on its repair and preservation. After […] finally being assigned a three-room apartment by the Housing Office, I […] had to spend approximately 500 Reichsmark on its makeshift structural restoration. After years of struggle, I am finally in possession of a home that will allow me to perform my academic work in peace; however, this major success is offset by the fact that I have incurred debts as a result of the expenses described above… I would therefore like to take the liberty of asking whether it would be possible to grant me another one-off support?”

Her expansive request did not fall on deaf ears; four weeks later, on 22 December 1922, the Ministry of Science, Art and Popular Education ordered a payment of 500 Reichsmark as a “one-off scholarship” for Betty Heimann.

But she did not seem deterred by her money problems or her other difficulties, nor by the fact that she had to overcome numerous other obstacles as a woman at a male-dominated university. Although her lectures were very popular and well attended, she only received 70 percent of the wages paid to her male colleagues – just like all other women by law.

If we look at Heimann’s correspondence, which is now stored in the university archives, we can appreciate how hard she had to work to earn respect for her research work. The Sanskrit expert naturally relied on knowledge of foreign countries, and so she filed several requests with various bodies in 1928 to support her planned trip to India. Despite her professional competence, her applications were rejected.

Things only started looking up in 1931, when Heimann received an international award for her book entitled “Studying the Peculiarity of Indian Thought”. The award had been founded in England specifically to honour the academic work of female scholars. The prize was a scholarship, allowing Heimann to spend nine months in India from October 1931.

In the same year, she was appointed as a non-tenured associate professor at the University of Halle. However, it wasn’t long before the Jewish scholar was subjected to an increasing amount of anti-Semitic resentment, and she began to look for a way out. She seized her opportunity by embarking on a lecture tour to England, for which she had previously been granted an exit permit.

She left the country in early September 1933. During her stay in England, she was informed that her teaching licence had been revoked and her wages had been terminated. Heimann never returned. She assumed various teaching roles, one of which was at the University of London as a lecturer of Indian philosophy.

After the Second World War, she only contacted her former employer in Halle by mail to ask whether she was entitled to a pension for her work. Her enquiry was neatly registered and filed in November 1947, and it was rejected with impressive bureaucratic thoroughness just a short time later “due to the current regulations”. In 1957, the MLU appointed Betty Heimann as a full professor – retroactively from 1935.

The talented scholar from the small discipline is now commemorated by a street name on the Weinberg Campus in the Heide-Süd area, as well as a bust that was created by the sculptor Grete Budde shortly before Heimann left the country in 1933. The sculpture now forms part of the university’s art collection.

Big Names

The University’s history connects it to many well-known figures or big ideas. Not everyone, however, is fully clued up on the whys and wherefores of these connections. But that’s about to change. The section, “Big Names” is a reminder of the outstanding researchers and academics who have links to the City of Halle.


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