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Cremer, Erika


(b. Munich, Germany, 20 May 1900;

d. Innsbruck, Austria, 21 September 1996), chemical kinetics, atomic energy, chromatography, gas liquid chromatography, reaction kinetics, catalysis, adsorption, thin-layer technology.

Cremer is a pioneer in gas chromatography. At the beginning of her scientific work there were studies on chain-mechanisms of chemical reactions, accounting to some extent for explanations of fast reactions such as in detonating gases containing hydrogen. To reaction kinetics and catalysis she added the field of adsorption, which became the basis for chromatographic methods. In applications such as column, liquid, thin-layer, and high-pressure chromatography and others, this is a widely used analytical method in various aspects of chemistry and life science.

Cremer was the daughter of Max Cremer, a professor of physiology. Her mother, Elisabeth (née Rothmund), descended from a dynasty of scientists. Erika had two brothers: Hubert was a mathematician at Technical High School Aachen; Lothar was a professor in acoustics at Technical High School Berlin.

Cremer attended the Lyzeum Boretius in Berlin beginning in October 1911, took her final examination at Elisabeth-Oberschule in Berlin in mathematics, physics, and chemistry with excellent marks (“Sehr Gut”) on 21 February 1921, and then studied chemistry and physics at Kaiser Wilhelm University in Berlin. The introductory course Inorganic Experimental Chemistry (Anorganische Experimentalchemi) was given by Walther Hermann Nernst. Cremer was impressed by the opposing opinions of Nernst and Albert Einstein as she heard them expressed in the Physics Colloquium of Max von Laue.

In her thesis—“Über die Reaktion zwischen Chlor, Wasserstoff und Sauerstoff im Licht” (About the reaction between chlorine, hydrogen, and oxygen in light), supervised by Nernst’s successor, Max Bodenstein—Cremer proposed a reaction scheme and drew as a possible conclusion the idea that the explosion process was due to chain branching. Nikolaj N. Semjonov, a professor of physical chemistry in Leningrad since 1931, learned of Cremer’s thesis and invited her for a research visit at his institute for several weeks in 1932. Cremer later said that the idea of accounting for explosions in terms of chain branching had been her priority. When Semjonov, together with Cyril Norman Hinshelwood, received the Nobel Prize (1965, Chemistry) for research in chemical kinetics, Cremer was convinced that the Nobel Prize should have been awarded to her for her thesis work, just as Marie Curie had been awarded the Nobel Prize (1911, Chemistry) for her doctoral thesis study of radioactivity in 1903. She felt that Bodenstein had not given enough attention to the results of her thesis.

Cremer had personal contacts with many leading figures among Berlins natural scientists. Strangely enough she seems to have had strong reservations against the Austrian Lise Meitner. She assumed that Meitner—after leaving Germany following the Anschluss of Austria and emigrating to Sweden—had more or less willingly diminished the credit due to Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann by handing a letter written by Hahn about his discovery of uranium fission to Niels Bohr, and by publishing a note together with her nephew Otto Robert Frisch in London soon thereafter.

Cremer had to overcome difficult times in her academic career after her promotion to PhD on 11 October 1927, and had to cancel several projects because of poor working conditions. However, because of her private and financial background and her obvious abilities she was able to collaborate in excellent groups during this time, partly as an unsalaried postdoctorate. At first she worked with Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer; at other times she was in Freiburg with Georg Karl von Hevesy, who made available valuable samples of rare earth oxides for her investigations of catalytic reactions. Together with Hevesy as first author she published a paper “Über die Sulfate des Zirkoniums und Hafniums” (About the sulfates of zirconium and hafnium) in 1930. In October of that year Cremer returned to Berlin and started several projects in the new Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie together with Michael Polanyi. However, she was still working without a funded position. The ascendancy of the Nazis to power ended her cooperation with Polanyi, who emigrated to England. Nothing in Cremer’s public life reveals reservations on her part regarding National Socialism.

On 10 February 1939 Cremer was awarded a Dr. phil. habil. in Berlin for her investigation “Bestimmung der Selbstdiffusion in festem Wasserstoff aus dem Reaktionsverlauf der Ortho-Para-Umwandlung” (Determination of self-diffusion in solid hydrogen by the reaction scheme of ortho-para-conversion). She was now a member of the Uranverein (Uranium Society), a research group dealing with problems of using atomic energy. Carl Angelo Knorr, who since August 1940 had been building up physical chemistry at the University of Innsbruck and who knew Cremer from Munich, called her now to strengthen his group in Innsbruck. At this time Cremer had several offers for different positions. She continued her research for the habilitation in Innsbruck in an atmosphere she enjoyed because of scenic mountains and because of the rigorous catholic-conservative atmosphere. On 9 December 1940 she received a Lehrbefugnis (doctor habilitatus) for physical chemistry and was designated Dozentin mit Diäten (member of staff) on 8 April 1942. At the end of World War II the unmarried Cremer was the only representative of physical chemistry in Innsbruck. Nevertheless, her academic career proceeded sluggishly: On 6 February 1948 she received the title au....erordentlicher Universitätsprofessor (extraordinary professor); on 21 March 1951 she was appointed to au.....erordentlicher Universitätsprofessor für Physikalische Chemie; and only on 11 February 1959 was she appointed ordentlicher Universitätsprofessor (professor with a chair) of physical chemistry.

In Innsbruck, Cremer took part in Knorr’s research on catalytic hydration of acetylene. During this work she came upon the idea of applying methods described for liquids in liquid column chromatography to gases as gas chromatography. Theoretical considerations led to the conclusion that even very small differences in absorption energies should lead to the possibility of separating different gaseous samples, if the mixture to be separated is led by an inert carrier near to the surface of the adsorbing medium. Because this occurred during the war it was not possible to publish her invention of gas chromatography, although she got as far as reading the galley proofs of a note for the journal Die Naturwissenschaften and returning them to the journal in February 1945. After the liberation of Austria she told her PhD student Fritz Prior to verify her idea experimentally, and he built under her supervision the first gas chromatograph (Deutsches Museum). Cremer did not initially assign appropriate importance to what was in fact a genuinely brilliant idea. This episode illustrates how difficult it sometimes is for a scientist to recognize the real importance of ones own inventions. In 1952 the British chemists Archer John Porter Martin and Richard Laurence Millington Synge together were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their invention of partition chromatography, a process formulated as “the partition of a substance between two liquids…as a new analytic tool.”’

Cremer continued investigating experimental and theoretical aspects of gas chromatography and did research in reaction kinetics, catalysis, adsorption, and thin-layer technology. In spite of her modest academic position at a provincial university she was able to actively participate in the international scientific community because of her excellent research as a physical chemist. Her numerous student courses enhanced her productivity as a researcher. She was frequently able to compensate for the lack of expensive instruments and substances that could not be provided by the small and resource-limited Austria.

After returning from a one-year leave as visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1953–1954), Cremer worked to build up a radiochemistry group at her institute. Cremer’s school trained several well-known physical chemists who were successful both in industry and in academic science.

In 1964 Cremer was elected corresponding member of the mathematic-scientific class of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and a full member in 1973. The academy in 1970 decorated her with the Erwin Schrödinger Award. In 1958 she received the Wilhelm Exner Medal of the Austrian Gewerbeverein, in 1965 she became doctor honoris causa of the Technical University Berlin. Additional recognitions included in 1974 the American M. S. Tswett Chromatography Medal, in 1978 the Tswett Medal of the USSR. She retired on 30 September 1970.



With Fritz Prior. “Anwendung der chromatographischen Methode zur Trennung von Gasen und zur Bestimmung von Adsorptionsenergien.” Zeitschrift fur Elektrochemie (1951): 55, 66–69.

“How We Started to Work in Gas Adsorption Chromatography.” Chromatographia9 (1976): 364–366.


Bobleter, Ortwin. “Erika Cremer 1900–1996: A 96-Year Life of Research.” Chromatographia (1996): 581–582.

Lambert, David, and Tony Osmond. Great Discoveries and Inventions. London: Orbis, 1985.

Miller, Jane A. “Women in Chemistry and Physics.” In Women of Science: Righting the Record, edited by G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Neckel, Adolf. “Erika Cremer.” In Almanach der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 1996/97. Vol. 147, pp. 505–515. Vienna, 1998.

Oberkofler, Gerhard. Erika Cremer (1900–1996): Ein Leben für die Chemie. Innsbruck, Austria: Studien Verlag, 1998.

Pohl, W. Gerhard. “50 Jahre Gaschromatographie: Erika Cremer und Fritz Prior revolutionierten die Analytische Chemie.” Chemkon 5 (1998): 7–8.

Schwarzl, Sonja M. “Zum Beispiel: Erika Cremer.” Nachrichten aus der Chemie 49 (September 2001): 1106–1108.

Hans Mikosch

Gerhard Oberkofler

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