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Möller, Sophie C(h)arlotte Juliane (Lotte)


(b. Koblenz, Germany, 17 June 1893; d. Göttingen, Germany, 22 June 1973),

oceanography, continental hydrography, limnology.

Möller counts as the first female professor of oceanography in Germany. She published the first analysis of the deep-sea circulation in the Indian Ocean. Blocked from a promising career in oceanography due to the rivalry of a colleague, she changed fields to hydrography and limnology.

Education . Lotte Möller was born in Koblenz on 17 June 1893. Her father was an auditor at the Prussian Ministry of Agriculture. When her family moved to Berlin, she first visited a private school and later changed to a public secondary school for girls in Berlin. In 1914, at age twenty, she finished the girls’ high school with a pedagogical examination, which allowed her to teach at primary and secondary schools as well as to enroll at the philosophical faculty of the University at Berlin. Later she mentioned that school days as well as teaching had been hard to bear, due to her shy nature. During World War I she studied mathematics and geography (1914–1919). She was fascinated by the work of Albrecht Penck, director of the Institute and Museum of Marine Research at Berlin, who taught regional geography, while his colleague Alfred Merz taught limnology (the study of lakes). Max Planck, who would receive the Nobel Prize in 1919, stimulated her interest in physics and mathematics. During this period she also took part in geological courses and became familiar with fieldwork methods.

When male students had to join the army in 1916, Möller and her fellow female students took over Merz’s temperature measurements at the Sakrower See. From October 1917 to November 1918 she worked in the laboratory of the Technical Department of Radio Equipment. When she was preparing for her thesis for the next examination, she participated in the investigation of the tides in the North Sea. Finally in 1920 she passed her state examination in geography with honors. After passing her second state examination in the spring of 1921, she continued to investigate the tides. At the same time she taught in several schools in Berlin. During summer she was able to carry out her own research and measurements aboard a ship in the southeastern part of the North Sea.

In February 1923 she was granted leave from school teaching to accept a job as ausserordentliche Assistentin (female assistant with a special contract) with Merz. Within a year she prepared her PhD thesis on the deviation of current measurements in the ocean (1924). In his report Merz stressed that her investigation was methodically exemplary. It allowed for the correction of systematic errors from previous measurements and for the analysis of historical data together with contemporary measurements.

Career at the University . Möller was very lucky to become Merz’s regular assistant in 1925. (There were only twelve female assistants at the university in Berlin between 1913 and 1933.) She helped him prepare for the German Atlantic Expedition with the surveying ship Meteor, which was to investigate the southern Atlantic Ocean from 1925 to 1927. But for the first time she experienced discrimination due to her gender, because of the regulations that forbid females on ships of the German navy. For her male colleagues the expedition was a very good opportunity for working in an unexplored area, but Möller, who was thoroughly qualified, had to stay at home. Instead, in addition to her teaching and temperature research on the Sakrower See, she was in charge of organizing supplies for Meteor and analyzing the new data sent to Berlin.

A great privilege was bestowed on her when the German Marine Board offered her the opportunity to accompany the fleet aboard a steamer during a journey in the Mediterranean Sea in 1926, where she could carry out meteorological measurements. During the summer of 1927, she participated in a tourist cruise to the North Cape of Norway. On her way back, she stopped in Bergen (Norway) to work at the famous Geophysical Institute, the European center of oceanography. There she investigated internal waves in fjords.

After Merz’s death in 1925 at the beginning of the Meteor expedition, Möller continued his scientific legacy and followed his last wish to publish the tables and diagrams of his hydrographical investigation of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Knowing the ideas and the way of thinking of her former supervisor, she added additional, previously missing figures and used his short notes to analyze the data. She always made clear what Merz had done and what had been her own conclusions. The work, published in 1928, culminated in a synthesis of the mean conditions of currents between the Black Sea in the northeast and the Mediterranean Sea in the southwest. Her work was of such enduring quality that it was still cited in the third edition of Allgemeine Meereskunde, by Gunter Dietrich and others, published in 1975.

In the same year, her commitment to the Meteor expedition was honored with the Meteor medal of the Emergency Society of German Science, which had financed the expedition.

Möller’s older colleague Georg Wüst, who had been promoted from assistant to curator in 1928, felt deeply neglected because Merz had given his legacy by a formal will to her and not to him, although he also had been Merz’s student. He did not want to stay in her shadow and made this very obvious. To get out of further quarrels with him, she withdrew from her analysis of the Meteor data and looked for another field of work. After long discussions with Albert Defant and Penck, she decided to change to continental hydrography, which was a new research area at German universities. She hoped never to have her work conflict with Wüst’s again.

Supplanting from Oceanography . Before Merz left to lead the Meteor expedition, he had proposed themes for Möller’s and Wüst’s second (habilitation) theses required for attaining the rank of professor in Germany. While Wüst was the first German to pass a habilitation in oceanography in June 1929, Möller was only the fourth woman to finish the habilitation in Berlin a month later and became the first female oceanographer. Her thesis dealt with the circulation of the Indian Ocean on the basis of temperature and salinity measurements, and surface currents observations. She used her new methodology to correct systematic errors of older data. In that effort she incorporated deep-sea data from about twenty expeditions to the Indian Ocean dating back to the early 1870s. She presented maps of mean surface currents between 20° N and 20° S for each month of the year, which showed that the deep-sea circulation is dependent on the surface currents, which vary very strongly from season to season. Her results entered the American textbook by Harald Sverdrup and others, The Oceans, in 1942 and became one of the basic sources to describe the oceans around South Africa in 1950.

Penck wrote that Möller showed much more versatility than Wüst and noted that she was a very efficient oceanographer and very experienced in limnology. Although she had submitted a thesis on oceanographical research, she received a venia legendi (teaching authorization) for geography with special consideration of hydrography. This was to make it clear that she would not interfere with Wüst in the same area of research. Thus she became the first privatdozent to lecture on the hydrography of both running and standing waters.

At the institute she mainly was in charge of the practical course for students at the Sakrower See, where she had established a small field station in October 1927. This lake served as an interface between limnology and

oceanography, and here she gained great achievements through the investigation of the physical, chemical, and other hydrographical parameters. She also lectured on hydrography in two courses and sometimes on polar oceans or on the North and Baltic seas.

In 1931 she published the results of different oceano-graphical investigations like water stratification, movement in straits, and hydrographic conditions in Norwegian fjords. An instruction for calculation of water level in the German Bay, prepared for the German Marine Board also in 1931, was followed by a general description of the tides in this area (1933).

She developed a fast and reliable method for synoptic and spatial registration of the waters, which she used in collaboration with the Reich Administration of Waterways to study lakes and catchments areas of rivers. Finally, her investigations resulted in the establishment of the Hydrographical Service and its Hydrographical Institutes. Additionally she continued working on the determination of the constants of seawater. From 1933 onward she investigated the “Frisches Haff,” the lagoon in the Bay of Danzig, and integrated modern oceanographical methods with hydrography.

Career under the National Socialist Regime . After seizure of power by the National Socialist Party (NSDAP, or Nazis) on 30 January 1933, women had fewer opportunities to study and to do research as well as to work. At that time Möller was the only remaining female assistant out of six in the institutes of natural science. When Wüst joined the NSDAP on 20 April 1933, her colleagues recommended that she should do the same, so Wüst could not start a political lever against her. On 1 May 1933 she became a member, hoping that as a result she would keep her job. This decision did further her career. When others had to leave, she was permanently appointed in 1934 and became curator at the Institute of Marine Research. On 11 July 1935 her first appointment was ausserordentliche Professorin (female professor with a special contract) as the only woman among forty-seven male colleagues, and finally, on 25 May 1939, she was appointed ausserplanmässige Professorin, (additional female professor), while Wüst received an ausserplanmässige Professur (additional professorship). Due to her very good scientific reputation she was elected, with Penck’s sponsorship, to the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina at Halle in 1940.

To support the Soviet Union campaign in 1941 Möller had to prepare maps of the tides at Helgoland for the Supreme Naval Command. An atlas of the hydrographic conditions of the Gulf of Biscay followed in the same year. When the new department of Continental Hydrography originally proposed in the 1930s was approved on 1 April 1942 to evaluate materials for war in the occupied Eastern territories, Defant wanted Möller to become head of the department and to receive a beamtete ausserordentliche Professur (permanently appointed professorship on a special contract). But due to fundamental considerations of the ministry responsible, the chair was not appointed to her, but was given to Wüst. Instead she became head of the new department and received Wüst’s former position as group leader. For financial compensation, she got a paid teaching appointment for continental hydrography.

When a connection of the Russian waterways with the German Vistula-Dnieper channel was planned in occupied Poland, Möller led the preparation of a report on the Polish Bug–Pripyat region in 1942. Back home she was in charge of a research program on temperature and ice conditions of the rivers Spree and Havel for the Hydrographical Institute at Potsdam. The investigations were stopped when the instruments, the library, and the archive of the institute had to be evacuated to a salt mine close to Schönebeck-Elbe as a result of the increased air raids that had begun in 1943. Later Möller was called to the Nautical Department of the Supreme Naval Command to participate in the measurements of tides and currents.

New Start . After the war Möller was the only remaining civil servant in charge of the institute, but because of her membership in the NSDAP she was dismissed without notice on 29 December 1945. Möller left Berlin and moved to Göttingen in 1946, where she received a research commission from the academy for “Raumforschung und Landesplanung” (for Space Research and Regional Planning) to investigate the hydrographical conditions of Lower Saxony and completed a survey of the river basin of the Weser for the Directory of the Waterways. Her next publications dealt with the chemical composition of ground and surface waters in connection with the geological conditions of northwest Germany (1949, 1950), which were far ahead of her time.

In 1950 she applied for early retirement so she could spend more time on her scientific interests. The request was denied. In summer semester 1952 she received an unpaid teaching appointment at the university in Göttingen, but still continued her regional analysis of the geographical distribution of concentrations of dissolved substances of ground and surface waters. In 1956 she was appointed ausserplanmässige Professorin (female professor with a special contract) for geography and hydrography. In winter semester 1957–1958 she lectured on limnology at the university in Munich. She then retired from the professional world and, slowly losing her sight, spent her last years in Göttingen.


A complete bibliography and catalog of archival material at the universities of Berlin, Göttingen, and Munich as well at the Leopoldina in Halle can be found in Brosin (1999).


Die Deviation bei Strommessungen im Meere. Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Meereskunde, new series A, 13. Berlin: E. S. Mittler und Sohn, 1924. Berlin PhD thesis.

Alfred Merz’ Hydrographische Untersuchungen in Borporus und Dardanellen. Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Meereskunde, new series A, 18. Berlin: E. S. Mittler und Sohn, 1928. This is Möller’s analysis of Merz’s data.

Die Zirkulation des Indischen Ozeans auf Grund von Temperaturund Salzgehaltstiefenmessungen und Oberflächenstrombeobachtungen. Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Meereskunde, new series A, 21. Berlin: E. S. Mittler und Sohn, 1929. Habilitation thesis.

Das Tidegebiet der Deutschen Bucht (Die Vertikalkomponente der Gezeiten). Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Meereskunde, new series A, 23. Berlin: E. S. Mittler und Sohn, 1933.

“Stechlin-See und Sakrower See bei Potsdam.” Archiv für Hydrobiologie 29 (1935): 137–156.

“Die chemische Beschaffenheit der Grund- und Oberflächengewässer Nordwestdeutschlands in Beziehung zu den geologischen Verhältnissen.” In International Association of Theoretical and Applied Limnology Proceedings. Vol. 10, Congress in Switzerland August 1948, edited by Wilhelm Rodhe. Stuttgart, Germany: E. Schweizerbart'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1949.


Brosin, Hans-Jürgen. “Lotte Möller (1893–1973) und die gewässerkundlichen Arbeiten am Institut für Meereskunde Berlin.” Historisch-meereskundliches Jahrbuch 6 (1999): 19–34.

Dietrich, Günter, et al. Allgemeine Meereskunde: Eine Einführung in die Ozeanographie. 3rd ed. Berlin: Borntraeger, 1975.

Lüdecke, Cornelia. “Lotte Möller (1893–1974)—Erste Ozeanograhieprofessorin im deutschsprachigen Raum.” Koryphäe—Medium für feministische Naturwissenschaft und Technik 35 (2004): 39–42.

Sverdrup, Harald Ulrik, Martin Howell Johnson, and Richard Howell Fleming. The Oceans: Their Physics, Chemistry and General Biology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1942.

Cornelia Lüdecke

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