Introducing Gerhard Herzberg

By Denisa Popa

This article is also posted on the Canadian Science and Technology Historical Association blog.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of German-Canadian scientist Dr. Gerhard Herzberg’s Nobel Prize Award in Chemistry. The prize was awarded in recognition of “his contributions to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, particularly free radicals.” (NSERC) In celebration of this anniversary, Defining Moments Canada, in collaboration with Heritage Canada, the National Research Council of Canada, University of Saskatchewan, and ESRI Canada, is currently planning a national commemorative project: Herzberg50.             

Dr. Gerhard Herzberg

A portrait of a young, bespectacled Gerhard Herzberg.
“Gerhard Herzberg Portrait c.1928” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.

Gerhard Herzberg was born in Hamburg, Germany on December 25th, 1904. From an early age Herzberg developed a keen interest in the sciences, particularly astronomy, physics and chemistry (Stoicheff, 2002). According to his biography, while still in secondary school he attended supplementary lessons in modern physics (Stoicheff, 2002). These lessons, conducted by Professor Wilhelm Hillers, familiarized Herzberg with foundational theories in chemistry, physics and quantum mechanics (NSERC; Stoicheff, 2002). Herzberg initially considered a career in astronomy, but lacked the funds to pursue it any further (NSERC). In 1924, he ultimately decided to pursue engineering physics and enrolled in the Technical University at Darmstadt (NSERC). By the time he was 24 years old, he was well established in his field, publishing a number of academic papers on the topics of atomic and molecular physics, as well as obtaining a Doctorate in Engineering Physics in 1928 (NSERC).

Following his graduation, he entered a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Göttingen (University of Saskatchewan). Following that, Herzberg returned to Darmstadt where he spent five years conducting research on spectroscopy (University of Saskatchewan).  Spectroscopy is used to analyze the ability of molecules and compounds to emit and absorb different wavelengths of light and electromagnetic radiation (Herschbach, 1999). Through understanding the properties of the light/radiation that is emitted (or absorbed) scientists can learn more about the characteristics of molecules and compounds, including their structure and the types of chemical bonds they contain (Herschbach, 1999). 

A family portrait, 5 adults, 2 children and a dog.
“Gerhard Herzberg with family in Saskatoon c.1939” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada. 

While completing his postdoctoral fellowship, Herzberg met Luise Hedwig Oettinger, a university student also focusing on spectroscopic research (Stoicheff, 2002). The pair grew close and eventually married on December 30th, 1929 (Stoicheff, 2002). Over the years Luise, who received her Ph.D from the University of Frankfurt in 1933, co-authored a number of scientific papers with her husband (Stoicheff, 2002). The Herzbergs’ academic life in Germany would soon end in 1934 when the Nazi regime rose to power and began implementing new restrictions against Jewish scholars in academic institutions (Stoicheff, 2002). Herzberg received notice that he would no longer be permitted to teach at Darmstadt because of Luise’s Jewish heritage (Stoicheff, 2002; University of Saskatchewan). With the help of John W. T. Spinks (a chemist who visited and became closely acquainted with Herzberg in Darmstadt) and Walter C. Murray at the University of Saskatchewan, as well as funding from the Carnegie Foundation (as the university’s budget was limited during the depression era), the Herzbergs moved to Saskatoon that following year (NSERC). 

From 1935 to 1945 Herzberg established himself at the University of Saskatchewan, where he continued his research on molecular and atomic spectroscopy, publishing three new books (NSERC). He then spent the following three years at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory investigating “the absorption spectra of many molecules of astrophysical interest.” (NSERC) In 1948, the Herzbergs relocated back to Canada when Herzberg was invited to “establish a laboratory for fundamental research in spectroscopy” at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada. (NSERC) It was during his time at the NRC that one of his key discoveries was made–the observation of the spectra of methylene radical (CH2) (Stoicheff, 2002). Scientists describe free radicals as chemical species that have an unpaired electron in the outer valence shell (Winnewisser, 2004). Free radicals can be found as intermediates in a variety of chemical reactions (Herschbach, 1999). It was Herzberg’s contribution to the understanding of free radicals that contributed to his Nobel Prize win in 1971 (NSERC). Dr. Gerhard Herzberg had two children and passed away on March 3rd, 1999 at the age of 94 (Herschbach, 1999). 

Gerhard Herzberg stands on the steps of the National Research Council in the winter, briefcase in his left hand.
“Gerhard Herzberg on steps of NRC, 100 Sussex Drive, February 1985, photo 1” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada
“Dr. Gerhard Herzberg in Spectroscopy lab” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.

Aside from his numerous scientific achievements, Herzberg is remembered for his love of music and for his advocacy for basic science research and good science policy (Stoicheff, 2002). Throughout his life he developed a passion for music, learning to play the violin in his youth and then taking singing lessons later on as an adult– even holding concerts for his family and friends (Stoicheff, 2002)! In addition, he devoted many hours to advocating and promoting the value of basic and pure science research during a time of intense debate on science policy and what the focus of scientific research in Canada should be (Stoicheff, 2002). Within his speeches, for example, Herzberg highlights the “wide chasm in understanding of scientific matters between scientists and non-scientists.” (Herzberg, pg. 2, 1970) In an attempt to draw the sciences and humanities together he adamantly discussed the “connection between science and society” and “the cultural aspect of science”, both in the context of education and policy (Herzberg, pg. 10, 1973). Herzberg viewed the sciences as “a creative vocation, like art and music.” (Herzberg, pg. 4, 1973) The Herzberg50 commemoration aims to speak more broadly to Herzberg’s philosophy and discussion of the interdisciplinary connections between the sciences and humanities – topics that are still extremely relevant in Canada today. 

Further Resources


Herschbach, Dudley. “Obituary: Gerhard Herzberg (1904-99)” Nature 398 (1999): 670.

Herzberg, Gerhard. “Science and Society” Basterfield Lecture, University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus (12 October 1973). National Research Council Canada Archives 

Herzberg, Gerhard. “Science and Culture” University of Winsor Convocation Address. (30 May 1970). National Research Council Canada Archives 

Mant, Madeleine. “Curatorial Thinking About Health Histories: An Educational Framework” (August 4th, 2020) Defining Moments Canada

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. “About the Scientist: Gerhard Herzberg”. Last modified July 23, 2020.

Stoicheff, B. (2002). Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science. Ottawa: Canadian Science Publishing.  

University of Saskatchewan. “History of the Department: Dr. Gerhard Herzberg, 1904-1999”.

Winnewisser, G. “Gerhard Herzberg– A personal appreciation” Canadian Journal of Chemistry 82 (2004): 673-675.