Franz Volhard

born 02.05.1872 Munich
d. 24.05.1950 Frankfurt am Main

DGIM Honorary Member 1902 – 1950

Appointment as DGIM Ehrenmitglied 1938

Franz Volhard left his mark on the Wiesbaden congress of the DGIM, which he himself had chaired in 1930, for decades.1After his death in 1950, the words of a colleague made the rounds who "no longer wanted to go to Wiesbaden for the congress if Volhard was no longer there": "Wiesbaden and Volhard had been an inseparable concept for me for years. When he took the floor, it was always an event."2

Franz Volhard first grew up in Giessen,3 where his father Jacob Volhard – who later became a member of the Leopoldina – taught chemistry. The latter was married to Josephine Backofen, daughter of the court painter Franz Backofen. The couple had seven children; Franz Volhard was the fourth. The family moved to Erlangen in 1879. Here he briefly attended the fifth grade of the highschool before another move brought him to the highschool in Halle/Saale (Franckesche Stiftungen) in 1882. He passed his school-leaving examination in 1892 in Schulpforta. He completed his medical studies in Halle/Saale in 1897 with a state examination and doctorate after having spent some time in Bonn (preliminary examinations in 1894) and in Strasbourg. His dissertation dealt with eclampsia occurring in pregnant women and investigated the toxicity of urine and blood of pregnant women in rabbits. Nearly 200 other publications followed.

He married his wife, Else Toennies in 1899. The couple had six sons and four daughters.

Franz Volhard became acquainted with numerous hospitals in many parts of Germany during the first twenty years in the profession. He worked with David von Hansemann at the pathology department in Berlin-Friedrichshain in 1897/98, then with Franz Riegel at the Medizinischen Universitätsklinik in Giessen. Here he habilitated in 1901 with his research on fat splitting in the stomach and was deputy director in 1904/05. His attention increasingly turned to the heart and hepatic vein pulses; he was not afraid to contradict Riegel's theses.

Renovator of the Mannheimer Krankenanstalten

After a brief period at the Medical Polyclinic, he joined the municipal Luisenhospital in Dortmund at the beginning of 1906 as head physician of the Department of Internal and Nervous Diseases, where he also turned his attention to pneumology and the development of respiratory apparatuses. He began to build up a collection of hearts coated with paraffin wax, which was later shown worldwide. He moved to the Städtische Krankenanstalten in Mannheim on October 1, 1908. As director, he oversaw the renovation of the dilapidated old hospital and the construction of the new 1,200-bed hospital, which was completed in 1922.

Focus on Renal Research 

Volhard's most important colleague was the pathologist Theodor Fahr, who had been brought to Mannheim in 1909 and with whom he studied the Bright's disease, a renal condition, and came up with a new classification of renal diseases. Volhard was considered an expert on the circulatory system, but had been increasingly concerned with the kidney since 1905. During the First World War, in which he only briefly worked as a staff physician in Wilhelmshaven, he set up a 150-bed special hospital for kidney patients in a Mannheim school. By propagating a radical thirst-and-starvation diet, he was able to save numerous soldiers suffering from nephritis from death. Volhard's therapy also became routine during World War II and among wartime opponents.

Move to Halle and Call to Frankfurt am Main

He was appointed full professor of internal medicine on October 1, 1918, in the Halle with which he was familiar, exactly ten years after he began his service in Mannheim. He was entrusted with the duties of dean in 1922. Uremia, hypertension and the "armored heart" now formed his main areas of research. Like his father, he was admitted to the Leopoldina in 1924. Encouraged by his wartime experiences with kidney patients, he devoted himself more than ever to nephrology in Halle. Under his leadership, Halle became one of the most important nephrological centers. He turned down several calls, but accepted one to the University of Frankfurt am Main. He was appointed director of the Medical Clinic there on March 1, 1927. He completed his two-volume "Nierenbibel" in Frankfurt am Main, which appeared as volume VI of the Handbuch der Medizin in 1931.4

Between Distance and Adaptation During the Nazi Era

Volhard was dean when the National Socialists came to power. He adapted as much as he thought was necessary for his career and to prevent National Socialists from holding important positions. In April/May 1933, he repeatedly advised the Swiss anatomist and pacifist Hans Bluntschli, who later moved from Frankfurt to Bern, to take a leave of absence. After Bluntschli had requested a dignified departure, Volhard specified on May 5, 1933: "I do indeed believe that it would be in the interest of the faculty or university if you were to refrain from lecturing under the present circumstances and take a leave of absence, at least for the time being. I would therefore ask you to render this service to the faculty."5 Bluntschli moved to Bern for the winter semester 1933/34.6

Volhard's obliging behavior was not enough for the new rulers. Although still confirmed as dean on April 26, 1933, by a vote of 12 to 1, he was defeated on November 9, 1933, by surgeon and National Socialist Hans Holfelder, who had most recently been SS-Oberführer.

Volhard continued to act as if National Socialism could be given a human face. Unsuccessfully, he argued in favor of "non-Aryan" doctoral students being able to issue them "a provisional certificate" upon passing the doctoral examination, as had been the case before.7

A little later, he considered a chair in hereditary biology in Frankfurt "more urgent", than one in physical-dietary therapy and naturopathy. This attitude, seemingly pointing in the direction of Nazi crimes, was de facto directed against Heinrich Lampert, then appointed full professor of physical therapy and naturopathy at the end of 1934, who was considered a fanatical National Socialist.8

Vis-á-vis the pharmacologist Werner Lipschitz, who was considered a "full Jew," Volhard did, however, take steps leading to his dismissal and emigration to Istanbul, despite urgent pleas for solidarity.9

He avoided joining the NSDAP, but became a supporting member of the SS (1933-1939) and a member of the SA Reserve II. In addition, he joined the NS-Altherrenbund, the NS-Bund der Kinderreichen, the NS-Volkswohlfahrt, and the Volksbund für das Deutschtum im Ausland.10 This kind of commitment to the National Socialist state remained insufficient in the eyes of the regime. Volhard was given emeritus status against his will on October 1, 1938, although a further extension of his tenure would have been possible.11 Although the Nazi Gauleitung did not consider him "politically suspect in the actual sense," they saw in him the danger of unwelcome political statements abroad. 12 In fact, news of his retirement reached him in South America.13

He was not even allwoed to stay in office until replacement was found, so until his successor – the strapping National Socialist Wilhelm Nonnenbruch – was appointed, first a senior physician, then the director of the polyclinic took over the clinic's management.14

Threatened Family

The regime's skepticism toward Volhard was related to the fate of his second-born son Hans. The latter had married Hilde Seelig, a Jewish woman, in 1927. Their daughter Nana was deaf and threatened with forced sterilization. Not least because of a cooperation with his Jewish family-in-law, Hans Volhard was imprisoned for nine months in 1938/39.15 In order to ease the situation of his son's family, according to his later explanation, Franz Volhard now applied for NSDAP membership after all. But since he stated here that he was a Master Mason, the NSDAP grew even more suspicious.16

As professor emeritus, Volhard remained an influential advisor, for example when it came to the succession of Richard Siebeck in 1941 at the Charité in Berlin, or Nikolaus Jagic in Vienna in 1944. He was now even less hesitant with clear assessments. Vis-à-vis Gustav von Bergmann, for example, he blamed "the perfidy of Achelis" for the fact that he had not been able to transfer to the Charité. "We," Volhard told von Bergmann, "would have gotten along wonderfully."17 As a ministerial councilor in the Prussian Ministry of Culture in 1933/34, the physician Johann Daniel Achelis was "the architect of the 'cleansing' of German universities."18

It fits the mold that Volhard wrote a private letter criticizing rapproachements by colleagues to the regime. Thus, although he wanted to see Nonnenbruch on an important chair, he criticized his approach to de Crinis or even to the minister. Volhard still wanted to maintain the chimera of university autonomy in 1944: "The [minister] should abide by the faculty's proposals."19

Reinstatement by the Allies

Volhard was reinstated by the U.S. military government in 1945 and by the Hessian Ministry of Culture as clinic director and full professor in 1948.20 During the Nuremberg medical trial in 1947, he exonerated Wilhelm Beiglböck, who had been responsible for human experiments. Volhard seems not to have "realized the fundamental difference" between the Dachau human experiments to make seawater drinkable, and the thirst-and-starvation diet he advocated for soldiers suffering from nephritis.21 He was of the opinion "that there can be no question of a crime against humanity in such experiments."22When Franz Volhard was celebrated at an academic ceremony in Frankfurt on May 2, 1947, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, he accepted Louis R. Grote, a proponent of the "Neue Deutsche Heilkunde" (New German Medicine) that had been promoted for a time by the National Socialists, as keynote speaker.23

The post-war years were also extremely eventful in Volhard personal life. He went through life referring to people in his surroundings by their first name. His son Rolf lived at his house for a long time with his family, including the later Nobel Prize winner Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, who was born in 1942. Volhard lacked the patience to deal with guests such as the deaf granddaughter Nana – unlike Christiane, referred to as Janni, a cousin of Nana's.24His wife died in 1949. Volhard, who was still considered temperamental, had a car accident on May 4, 1950, while driving to the Swiss Congress of Internists. His co-driver and secretary died at the scene of the accident, he himself died twenty days later.25 Gustav von Bergmann was able to see something positive in the accident: "Let us be grateful that this misfortune, to which he was always predestined due to his temperament, struck him at such late a stage, after having organized and brought clarification to the clinics of renal diseases."26

Honorary Member of the DGIM

The number of awards and honors is large. When Volhard became an honorary member of the DGIM in 1938, he was already an honorary doctor of the Sorbonne (1933) and a recipient of the Billroth Medal of the Vienna Medical Association (1937), the Cothenius Medal of the Leopoldina (1937), the Grand Commander's Cross of the Royal Greek Order of George I (1937), among others. Other honorary doctorates followed (Freiburg and Göttingen 1947) and he was made an honorary citizen of the University of Frankfurt am Main (1947). He was honored with a bust in Halle in 1947, and posthumously in Frankfurt am Main (1952). Several clinics, wards, lectures, and awards have been named after him, such as the Volhard Vorlesungen of the University of Frankfurt am Main (since 1952), the Volhard Lectures of the International Society of Hypertension (since 1971), the Franz Volhard Medal of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Nierenforschung  (since 1976), and the Franz Volhard Award of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Nierenforschung (since 1980).


See Franz Volhard, Erinnerungen, ed. by H.-E. Bock, K. H. Hildebrand, H. J. Sarre, Stuttgart/New York 1982, p. 50.Cited in Claudia Kronschwitz, Franz Volhard. Leben und Werk, Frankfurt am Main 1997, p. 248.For biography see Ralf Forsbach, Volhard, Franz, in: Neue Deutsche Biographie 27 (2020), pp. 89-90; Volhard, Erinnerungen; Kronschwitz, Volhard. For references, thanks to Rev. Klaus Lobisch/Gauting, a great-nephew of Franz Volhard.F. Volhard/F. Suter, Nieren und ableitende Harnwege, Berlin 1931 (= Handbuch der Medizin, vol. 6/I and 6/II).See Udo Benzenhöfer, Die Frankfurter Universitätsmedizin zwischen 1933 und 1945, Münster/Ulm 2012, p. 29.See Benzenhöfer, Universitätsmedizin, p. 31 f.See Benzenhöfer, Universitätsmedizin, p. 11; Udo Benzenhöfer, Die Medizinische Fakultät der Universität Frankfurt am Main in der Zeit von 1933 bis 1941 im Spiegel der Sitzungsberichte, in: ders. (ed.), Die Medizinische Fakultät der Universität Frankfurt am Main im Spiegel der Sitzungsberichte (1914-1941), Münster/Ulm 2011, pp. 85-121, p. 93; Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 161.See Benzenhöfer, Universitätsmedizin, p. 42 f.; Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 161.See Benzenhöfer, Universitätsmedizin, p. 21 ff.See Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 160.See Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 232.Letter from the Gauleitung, 21.2.1939, cited in Benzenhöfer, Universitätsmedizin, p. 54; cf. Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 234.See Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 232.See Benzenhöfer, Universitätsmedizin, p. 54.See Nana Fischer, Papi und ich. Die Geschichte einer ungewöhnlichen Kindheit und Jugend, Frankfurt am Main 2001, pp. 9 f., pp. 19 ff, p. 29 f. and passim; Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 151, p. 228, p. 233; Volhard, Erinnerungen, p. 63.See Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 235.Archiv der Humboldt-Universität Berlin, UK Personalia 5, 98, vol. II, Siebeck, Volhard to von Bergmann, Aug. 12, 1941.Helmut Heiber, Universität unterm Hakenkreuz, Teil 1, Der Professor im Dritten Reich. Bilder aus der akademischen Provinz, Munich et al. 1991, p. 392.Medizinische Universität Wien, Sammlungen und Geschichte der Medizin, Eppinger, Kongressunterlagen, MUW-AS-004424-0054, Volhard to Eppinger, o. D.. [probably July 1944].See Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 237; Notker Hammerstein, Die Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, vol. II, Postwar Period and Federal Republic 1945-1972, Göttingen 2012, p. 68.Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 244.See Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 244.The speech is documented in Volhard, Erinnerungen, pp. 99-106.See Fischer, Papi, p. 85.See Kronschwitz, Volhard, p. 248.Gustav von Bergmann, Festvortrag [during the 96th Assembly of the GDNÄ], 22.10.1951, in: Max Pfannenstiel [ed.], Kleines Quellenbuch zur Geschichte der Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte. Gedächtnisschrift für die hundertste Tagung der Gesellschaft, Berlin/Göttingen/Heidelberg 1958, pp. 97-100, p. 100.

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