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Science in Denmark: A Thousand-Year History

Other Research Project | 14/09/2016

Julius Thomsen in the auditorium of the University of Copenhagen’s chemistry laboratory | 1898.

Science has a long and proud history in Danish culture going as far back as to the early Middle Ages. Scientists working at Danish institutions have always worked to obtain close ties to the international community of scientists in Europe and across the globe. Similarly, the world of science has always been linked to political, commercial, and social affairs, and scientists to varying degrees have always been concerned about the social responsibility of science.

In this project, which is supported by the Carlsberg Foundation, a team of historians of science has for the first time produced a coherent historical narrative about science in Denmark from the 10th to the 20th century. The aim of the project was to produce new historical knowledge about scientific research carried out by Danish scientists or international scientists working at Danish institutions. The project has resulted in a comprehensive four-volume book in Danish, one book volume in English summarising the main results for an international audience, and many specialised research articles in peer-reviewed journals dedicated to the history of science.

Kristian H. Nielsen, co-editor of the fourth volume covering the period from 1920 to 1970, says:

“Our project covered the time period up until 1970, at which time new and exciting developments in science in Denmark took off. Today, Denmark ranks among the top three best scientific nations in the world, measured in terms of citation impact and national science budgets. It will be up to future investigations of science in Denmark to discover the full range of reasons for this unique development.”

Science Before Science

Danish ‘science’ or natural philosophy in the Middle Ages comprised the study of nature and natural philosophy based on Roman and early medieval scientific texts. Scholars aimed to understand nature as a coherent system functioning under divinely established laws. The first centre of learning in Denmark emerged in Lund (now part of Sweden) in affiliation to the cathedral founded there in the early 12th century.

After several failed attempts in the early 15th century, the University of Copenhagen was established in 1479, two years after the establishment of the University of Uppsala. The university offered courses in all of the four traditional faculties: philosophy, theology, law, and medicine, and was entitled to award the bachelors, masters, licentiate, and doctorate degrees.

The Scientific Revolution in Denmark

The geo-cultural centres of the scientific revolution were located in Northern Italy, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France. Although the Scandinavian countries, Denmark-Norway and Sweden, in general was situated in the European periphery, and the 17th century moreover was a period of political and military turmoil in Denmark, Danish scientists to a remarkable extent contributed to the development of science in the period.

At the request of King Frederick II of Denmark, Tycho Brahe returned to Denmark to establish his famous observatory Uranienborg (the castle of Urania) on the island of Hven in Oresund. Somewhat anachronistically, the observatory has been called the first European “Big Science” project, due to the fact that Tycho Brahe’s scientific institution required up to one percent of the income of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Tycho Brahe (1546 -1601) ranks among the best-known Danish scientists of all time. His accurate and comprehensive observations of the new star that appeared in the Cassiopeia constellation in November 1572 helped shake the foundations of the contemporary worldview based mainly on the idea of celestial immutability going back to antiquity. After publication of his observations in the 1573 book De Nova Stella (The New Star), Tycho Brahe gained instantaneous recognition. Royal or aristocratic patronage was crucial to the scientific revolution, and Tycho Brahe in his own time was highly skilled at securing financial and personal support for his scientific endeavours.

The Golden Age

The period from around 1800 to the mid-19th century was a rough period for Denmark in terms of politics, war, and catastrophe. Still, Danish science and culture thrived, which is why the period is known as the Golden Age in Denmark.

Throughout the Golden Age, royal patronage increased in importance for Danish scientists, and scientific institutions increasingly became tied to the royal state. The last absolute king of Denmark, King Christian VIII, in particular was very interested in and supportive of the natural sciences. The king died in 1848. Two years later, the University of Copenhagen established its first Faculty of Science.

The most famous and most influential Danish Golden Age scientist was Hans Christian Ørsted (1777-1851). Ørsted is best known as the discoverer of electromagnetism in 1820. Yet, he was also active in many other fields. Ørsted exerted great influence in virtually all corners of the scientific community in Denmark as well as in public affairs. He was the natural choice for the professorship in physics at the newly established Faculty of Science at the University of Copenhagen in 1850, the first of its kind in Scandinavia.

Like other scientists at the time, H.C. Ørsted was inspired by Romanticism and the ideas developed by German philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling about the unity of nature. Revealing the rational and aesthetic structure of nature remained the lifelong ambition of Ørsted, who in addition to his scientific achievements also nurtured a profound interest in literature.

Helge Kragh, in charge of the project’s research on the history of science in Denmark up until 1850, says:

“Ørsted in many ways embodied the spirit of the Golden Age. He was a prolific writer, a busy teacher at many different institutions in Copenhagen, a well-known popular lecturer, and had an extensive network in political, cultural, and scientific circles.”

Science and Democracy

Professionalisation of the social role of the scientific researcher was one of the main characteristics of the history of science in second part of the 19th century, as was an ever-increasing specialisation of scientific research. New scientific associations emerged in support of the emerging disciplines and their professional practitioners.

Science’s professionalisation and specialisation were a result of the inner dynamics of scientific research where new research fields constantly arose, but also were tied to general development in the new democratic society where traditional social structures based on class and family gradually were replaced by new forms of recognition such as professional status. 

 “Our century is the age of science,” exclaimed professor of chemistry Julius Thomsen (1826-1909) in 1884 during the annual banquet at the University of Copenhagen. Although the topic of Thomsen’s speech, “On Atoms and Molecules,” was limited in scope, his actual presentation was almost triumphant in its enumeration of the many wonders science and technology had brought to the 19th century.

A photograph of Julius Thomsen in the auditorium of the University of Copenhagen’s chemistry laboratory, taken in 1898. Note the periodic table to the left of Thomsen, a new arrangement of the periodic table that had been devised by Thomsen. When Niels Bohr in 1922 explained the periodic table using his new quantum theory, he referred to Thomsen’s arrangement.

Peter C. Kjærgaard, heading the project’s research on the history on science in Denmark from 1850 to 1920, says:

“As Thomsen’s words indicate, there was at the turn of the century a general feeling among scientists and the general public that science had made and was making great advances. The young democracy in the later 19th century grew more and more fascinated with technical development and with science. Denmark, an agricultural, industrialising society focused on national reconstruction, placed great trust in technology and applied science.“

Private Philanthropy and Public Funding of Scientific Research

Due to economic crisis and a lacking of interest on behalf of many Danish politicians, Danish science in the interwar years to a high degree was sponsored by private foundations. During this period, the Danish natural and medical sciences experienced a large and lasting resurgence.

If public funding was lacking, there was little shortage of funds for scientific research from industry and private foundations, some Danish and some international in scope. The Rockefeller Foundation backed a large number of research environments throughout Europe in the interwar years; Copenhagen, to be sure, was one of the locations that received the most generous support from the American foundation.

The largest contributions to Danish science were granted by the Carlsberg Foundation, established by the brewer and philanthropist J.C. Jacobsen (1811-1887) in 1876. The foundation was of unparalleled significance to the development of science in Denmark in the interwar period, serving a veritable gold mine for Danish scientists.

Thanks in part to generous donations from private foundations, the interwar years should be seen as a second Golden Age for science in Denmark. Niels Bohr (1885-1962) and his Copenhagen school in quantum physics is probably the best-known example of the booming scientific research environment in Copenhagen at the time.

Niels Bohr (right) in conversation with Werner Heisenberg in 1934. In September 1941, Heisenberg, who had become head of the German nuclear energy project, visited Bohr in Copenhagen. The subject of their meeting has caused much speculation, as Heisenberg later claimed that he wanted to forewarn Bohr about German efforts to produce nuclear weapons, whereas Bohr said that he never understood the real purpose of Heisenberg’s visit, but was shocked by Heisenberg’s insistence that Nazi-Germany would win the war.

Henry Nielsen, who, with Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen, was responsible for the project’s research in the history of contemporary science in Denmark from 1920 to 1970, says:

“Niels Bohr was one of the most prominent physicists in the world in the 20th century with great organisational skills. He had enormous authority in Danish society, so when Denmark after World War II, like most other industrial countries, wanted to get involved in applied nuclear research, Bohr led the way.”

Science and Public Affairs after World War II

After World War II, Denmark – like many other countries across the globe – developed a national research policy. The thriving economy in the 1950s and particularly in the 1960s resulted in a dramatic increase in public funding of scientific research. In constant prices, the size of grants, allocated under the yearly appropriation acts, doubled every five years between 1955 and 1971.

Despite considerable opposition from the University of Copenhagen, the new minister of education Julius Bomholt in 1954 pushed through the establishment of the Faculty of Science at Aarhus University, founded in Denmark’s second-largest city in 1928. The new faculty incorporated physics and chemistry that had previously been located at the Faculty of Medicine, Geography (from the Faculty of Arts), and the newly established Department of Mathematics. The buildings were designed by local architect C.F. Møller and built in yellow bricks just as the rest of Aarhus University campus.

The 1960s brought a number of changes to the Danish research system as the great expansion in the fields of research and higher education intensified the political and administrative need of high-level advisory services and a coordinated research policy. In 1968, the five research commissions of the State’s Research Foundation were transformed into five independent research councils covering the natural sciences, the technical sciences, the social science, the medical sciences, and the humanities, respectively.

The research councils and the Joint Research Committee, established in 1965 to advise the government on research issues, up until the 1990s remained scientists-led, highly pluralistic and relatively uncoordinated with public affairs outside the sciences. No one had, as yet, begun to speak of the Danish state actually steering research in certain directions. This discussion did not emerge until the early 1970s.

Henrik Knudsen, who as part of the project did his PhD on the establishment of organisation of technical research in Denmark from 1900 to 1960, says:

“Scientists have always acknowledged science as an international activity. In the interwar years, prominent scientists in Scandinavia and the Netherlands tried to bridge the gap, or rather the abyss, that had opened between their colleagues in the European nations involved in World War I. Later in the 20th century the concept of internationalisation became tied to America’s huge investments in science and technology, and Danish scientists, like most other scientists across the globe, were drawn to the rich, well-equipped American universities.”

Selected Publications

Helge Kragh, Peter C. Kjærgaard, Henry Nielsen, and Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen 2008. Science in Denmark: A Thousand-Year History (Aarhus University Press).

Helge Kragh, Peter C. Kjærgaard, Henry Nielsen, and Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen (red.) 2005-06. Dansk Naturvidenskabs Historie, bd. 1-4 (Aarhus University Press).

Henrik Knudsen 2005. Konsensus og konflikt: Organiseringen af den tekniske forskning i Danmark 1900-1960 (PhD Thesis, Aarhus University).

Simon Olling Rebsdorf 2005. The father, the son, and the stars: Bengt Strömgren and the history of twentieth century astronomy in Denmark and in the USA (PhD Thesis, Aarhus University).