Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Gertrud Jan Woker

Make science, not war

Name: Gertrud Jan Woker
Nationality: Swiss
Lived: 1878-1968
Fields: Chemistry, toxicology, pharmacology and biology
Claim to fame: Talented toxicologist and vigorous peace campaigner who campaigned for the ethical application of research

In the first half of the 20th century, the Swiss biochemist and toxicologist Gertrud Woker (1878-1968) was an outspoken opponent of the use of chemical and biological warfare
and a leading figure in the women‘s pacifist movement.

A meeting of minds

Gertrud Jan Woker was the daughter of Philipp and Johanna Woker. An academic at the University of Berne, her father‘s book on the financial dealings of the popes had been added to the Catholic Church‘s list of forbidden books. Her mother was a highly intelligent musician and artist who believed strongly in human rights.
When she fi nished school, the young Gertrud was keen to continue her studies. Unfortunately, her father had other ideas and sent her to Erfurt in Germany – where her uncle was chief physician in a hospital – to learn to cook. Undeterred, Gertrud studied mathematics secretly at night with the brother of a fellow student.

Burn out

Leading a double life proved to be an exhausting business and Gertrud fell ill. Her doctor uncle diagnosed her with chlorosis, a form of anaemia, and prescribed a course of iron tablets. Back in Switzerland, Gertrud went for treatment to the first woman doctor to practise in Berne. The doctor, who knew from her own experience how hard some women had to fi ght for their right to study, quickly realised that her young patient was suffering from fatigue.
Gertrud‘s wish to study was fi nally granted, and she went on to obtain her PhD and school teaching qualification in chemistry, physics and botany from the University of Berne.

An initiator of interdisciplinary research

In an age when clear boundaries demarcated the different scientific disciplines, Gertrud Woker advocated an interdisciplinary approach to research. Her principle areas of interest were physical chemistry, toxicology, pharmacology and biology. In 1907, she gained her qualification to teach at university and was granted permission to lecture in Berne.
As World War I raged around neutral Switzerland, Woker was horrified by the widespread use of poison gas in the trenches. She believed strongly that researchers had a responsibility to ensure that their science was not misused for war.

A passionate pacifist

Gertrud became an active member of the organisation that would eventually become the Women‘s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). At its historic meeting in The Hague in 1915, the fledgling organisation came up with a list of 20 resolutions calling on the warring nations to lay down their arms and find peaceful means of settling their differences. The resolutions also called for disarmament and equal rights for women. During World War I they were communicated in person to the governments of both warring and neutral countries; Gertrud was responsible for getting the message through to the Swiss government. The resolutions eventually reached the desk of US President Woodrow Wilson, who later used them as inspiration for some of his own peace proposals (the ‘14 points‘).
In the aftermath of the war, the WILPF continued to campaign vigorously against the use of poison gas in warfare and Gertrud, with her expertise in toxicology, coupled with her ability to explain complex subjects to the public, was at the forefront of this work.

Digging graves

In 1924, Gertrud co-founded the International Committee Against Scientific Warfare. In the same year she published a leafl et entitled The next war, a war of poison gas, which set out the different kinds of gas that could be used in warfare, explained how they could be distributed and vividly described their horrific impacts on their victims.
“But a few instances are enough to make us conscious of the deadly peril that lies in the use and development of poison gas,” Woker warns. In the text, she says that when she saw research being used to develop such technologies, “I could not but shudder and think that here science was digging its own grave”.
The leafl et was distributed worldwide in English, French and German. Woker‘s book on the same subject was banned in Germany in 1925.

A tireless campaigner

In the years following World War I, Woker gave numerous public lectures on poison gas and other topics in toxicology that impacted on people‘s lives, such as the use of lead in petrol. Meanwhile, her research continued, and in 1933 she was made a professor of biochemistry at the University of Berne, following interventions from pacifist colleagues around the world.
In 1951, she published a monumental, two-volume work called The chemistry of the natural alkaloids, which was roundly praised in chemical, biological, pharma ceutical and medical journals.
Even in old age, Woker‘s enthusiasm for the pacifist cause was undimmed, and she remained an active member of the WILPF well into her 80s. Towards the end of her life Woker suffered from a persecution complex, centring on the fear that she would be sent to Vietnam which, at the time, was experiencing the full horrors of chemical warfare. She died in Switzerland in 1968.

Scientific achievements

Gertrud Woker was a successful and talented biochemist but her most enduring achievement was as one of the greats of science communication. She managed to raise awareness of the destructive power of science when applied in the field of  battle and campaigned tirelessly to end World War I and promote disarmament. One German WILPF member summed up the value of her work by describing it as “so infinitely valuable [it] will make Gertrud Woker‘s name immortal”.