Biographical Abstract: Portrait of Siegfried J. Thannhauser


     Primarily recognized through his leading work in the field of medicine, groundbreaking scientific research and the authorship of countless academic papers, Siegfried J. Thannhauser led a life of intrigue and accomplishment in the midst of international turmoil. During the cataclysmic years of the First World War, Siegfried Thannhauser journaled his experience as a Major in the Army Medical Corps by compiling two albums of photography ranging from 1915 to the closure of the conflict in 1918. Caught between two transformative conflicts of the twentieth century, Thannhauser’s narrative was impacted by struggles of national, regional and cultural identity surrounding his Jewish Bavarian heritage prior to and following the collapse of German Empire and perseverance in the face of persecution after the rise of the Nazi Party. Transcending major hostilities of his time in Europe, Siegfried Thannhauser became an esteemed researcher at Tufts University in Boston with honorary doctorates from Heidelberg, Munich, and Dusseldorf University.[69] Today, we can recognize the narrative of Siegfried Thannhauser as the life of a man with steadfast commitment to his field and the bravery to overcome adversity in the midst of twentieth century conflict.

Before taking the time to interpret Thannhauser’s two albums of wartime field photography, it is essential to understand the perspective of the man behind the camera. Siegfried Thannhauser was born in 1885 to an upper middle class Jewish Bavarian family who had found success manufacturing ceramic steins in Munich, Germany. Throughout his early life, Thannhauser made strong connections to what he recognized as his regional and cultural identities, the leading biography on Thannhauser’s life, Physician and Scientist in Turbulent Times by Alan F. Hofmann and Nepomuk Zöllner recounting, “He considered himself a Bavarian first and a German second. His Jewishness was a cultural heirloom, and his Bar Mitzvah was a time of celebration for the Jewish families of Munich, who, after three generations had integrated themselves into Munich society.” [Hofmann/Zöllner, Pg 21]. Following an interdisciplinary education which placed an emphasis on the arts and music while preparing him for university, Thannhauser chose to pursue a career in medicine at the Ludwig-Maximilian-University School of Medicine in Munich.

By 1914 the Thannhauser family was faced a difference of opinion regarding unified German involvement in the First World War alongside Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. Finding little personal obligation to the conflict as self identified Bavarians, Thannhauser’s daughter, Gretchen Thannhauser Munson recollects her father’s thoughts on the matter, writing, “My father at first did not want to participate in it – not because he had any liking for the French, but he, as most Bavarians, hated the Prussians, and my father, at first, thought this was strictly a Prussian war.” [Hofmann/Zöllner, Pg 40]. After the decision to temporarily close the doors of the family business rather than transfer its efforts to the suggested production of German artillery, Siegfried Thannhauser enlisted as a Major in theArmy Medical Corps in 1915, stationed in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace – a highly contested territory between Germany and France following the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. [41]  During his military service Thannhauser was awarded an Iron Cross and Bavarian Distinguished Conduct Medal after his rescue of wounded soldiers on between trenches under enemy fire. As the war ended in 1918, Siegfried Thannhauser returned to Munich and promptly wed his Catholic wartime fiance, Franzisca. Despite both partners’ families making their hesitance about the union clear – Thannhauser’s father who originally took issue with his son marrying a woman of a lower social rank – Siegfried and Franzisca enjoyed a long and supportive marriage. [39]

In the decade following the First World War, Siegfried Thannhauser became a professor and researcher at the University of Freiburg; Thannhauser’s colleague recounts his area of specialization, writing “He did fundamental work of protein metabolism, nucleic acids, uric acids, uric acid metabolism, cholesterol and phospholipids, and much more.” [Hofmann/Zöllner, Pg 29]. Following the seizure of the German government by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933, Joseph Goebbels passed the “Judenplakat” bill passed that same year, which forced countless accomplished figures in academia to leave their professional positions based upon their Jewish heritage [Heidegger, Pg 68]. Purged from the University of Freiburg in 1934, Thannhauser fled his beloved Bavaria to the United States with his three young daughters with the aid of his wife.

Following his departure from Germany, Siegfried Thannhauser settled in New England, securing a professorship at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts.  For the next three decades, Thannhauser completed defining research on the subject of metabolic functions and lipids, never returning to Germany despite standing requests for guest lectures. [55] In his later years, Thannhauser remained active in his field while enjoying his time at an estate in on Lake Winnapisake which his extended family maintains to this day. Following his passing in 1962, Siegfried Thannhauser was laid to rest in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, willing he and his wife’s remarkable collection of German Medieval woodcarvings to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Busch-Reisinger Museum of Germanic Art at Harvard University [55]. Following a lifetime of accomplishment recognized by houses of higher education in both Europe and the United States, Munich’s Uhlenhuthstrasse was renamed Thannhauserstrasse in 1997 emphasizing his impact in both his native Germany and the United States. [64]

Beginning in 1915 only one year after the commencement of the First World War, Siegfried Thannhauser began documenting his enlistment in two albums of wartime field photography. Titled Drei Ähren: 1915 and Kriegserinnerungen, a German word translating to “war memories”, each album contains from twenty to thirty images, organized and even captioned by Thannhauser himself. Housed in a remote closet of Thannhauser’s lakeside Wolfeboro estate, dedicated family members to this day play a primary role in maintaining the memories of their late relative. Nearly a hundred years after their compilation in the years following the First World War, the two albums remain in outstanding condition, maintained by Thannhauser’s family.

Granted access to these materials by Thannhauser’s relatives, the ability to share these pieces with the general public through the use of digital technologies suggests the following question: What does the heightened availability of these photographs give contemporary learners? More than approximately fifty unseen photographs from a conflict which shaped the progression of the twentieth century, Thannhauser’s albums of field photographs portray the narrative and perspective of an individual in the midst of a war in which the story of individuals are often lost in perspective to the millions of casualties claimed by the First World War. Offering twenty-first century viewers the chance to interpret this collection of autobiographic photographs, we can utilize this wartime account of an accomplished medical researcher in both European and American theaters to better understand personal experiences, perspective, and identity in the midst of the First World War.

Special thanks to Hampshire College alumnus Bera Dunau, and the Dunau, Munson, Beyer, and Thannhauser families.

Suggested Reading:

  1. Primary Source of Information, Cited as Page Numbers if not Otherwise Noted: Alan F. Hofmann, Nepomik Zöllner, Siegfried Thannhauser [1885-1962] : Physician and Scientist in Turbulent Times (, 1940) 
  2. Howard M. Sachar, Dreamland: Europeans and Jews in the Aftermath of the Great War. (Vintage Books, New York, 2003)
  3. Family Free of Siegfried Joseph Thannhauser”. Last Accessed October 21st, 2012. (
  4. Martin Heidegger, Karsten Harries, Hermann Heidegger,The Self-Assertion of the German University: Address, Delivered on the Solemn Assumption of the Rectorate of the University Freiburg the Rectorate 1933/34: Facts and Thoughts (The Review of MetaphysicsVol. 38, No.(Mar., 1985), pp. 467-502, Philosophy Education Society Inc.) Stable URL: Pg 68.

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