All the “Friedrich Wilhelms”


One day I was seated in the library, reading Volume 2 of the Astronomische Nachrichten, in which F. W. Bessel mentioned that he had he asked a young assistant, F. W. A. Argelander, to make some observations of refraction near the horizon. Now, as it happens, I was aware that the already-famous Bessel, as well as the soon-to-become-famous Argelander, were both named Friedrich Wilhelm.

“Gee, that's funny,” I thought. “Both of these astronomers had the same first names.”

Then I remembered that F. W. Murnau, the director of the classic vampire film Nosferatu, was also a Friedrich Wilhelm. (Actually, it turns out he was born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe ; but it's the “F. W.” I'm concerned with here.) I began to wonder just how many other Friedrich Wilhelms there were among notable Germans.

More Friedrich Wilhelms

A lot, I discovered. A little searching turned up the fact that Friedrich Nietzsche was really Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.

Besides his imposing work “Also sprach Zarathustra,” Nietzsche wrote an essay on Richard Wagner. And it turns out that Wagner's father was actually named Friedrich Wilhelm Wagner.

Speaking of relatives, how about Eduard Friedrich Wilhelm Weber, the physician and brother of the more famous physicist Wilhelm Weber? (Wilhelm Weber is the namesake of the SI unit of magnetic flux.)

But a better (and more astronomical) example is the astronomer “William” Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus. Did you know he was born Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel, and changed his name to Frederick William when he settled in England?

And don't forget his son, John Herschel — whose full name was John Frederick William Herschel.

Still more Friedrich Wilhelms

All right, maybe that shouldn't count, being Anglicized, as well as buried in the middle of John Herschel's name.

Well then, how about General von Steuben, after whom the town of Steubenville, Ohio, is named? (I used to pass through Steubenville on visits to relatives, when I was a boy.) Bet you didn't know he was really (deep breath) Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben. (Another famous German general was Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff, who commanded the Eastern front in WWI.)

Also, when I was a boy, I went to kindergarten. Did you know that the founder of the kindergarten movement was Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel? (Note: the same three  first names as Argelander!)

Speaking of social movements, how about Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, founder of the Cooperative Societies?

And there's Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Albrecht von Graefe, the leading ophthalmologist of the 19th Century. He founded a journal on ophthalmology that I have had occasion to cite, both in my paper on visual effects in green flashes, and on my Web page dealing with Galileo's blindness.

Obscured Friedrich Wilhelms

Then there are the Friedrich Wilhelms you never hear about, because they have this pair of names embedded somewhere in a freight-train list of names, and used one of the others — such as Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf von Baeyer, who discovered fluorescein (1871), synthesized indigo (1880), and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1905.

Or the chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, who received the Nobel Prize in 1909. He was, of course, Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald. (In addition to being a founder of physical chemistry, he published a series of reprinted articles known as “Ostwalds Klassiker der Exakten Wissenschaften,” which are little gems — if you can still find copies.) Another chemist was Friedrich Wilhelm Straßmann, co-discoverer (with Hahn and Meitner) of uranium fission.

Or the mathematician Ludwig Kiepert, who has a conic section, the “Kiepert hyperbola”, named after him. His full name was Friedrich Wilhelm August Ludwig Kiepert (making the third example of a “Friedrich Wilhelm August . . .” in this list.)

A more notable example is the naturalist, writer, and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who was really Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt. [The “Freiherr” part is his title, not a name.]

Not to mention his brother, Wilhelm, a noted writer, philologist, and statesman in his own right — who was actually Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt.

As a nice tie-in to where this all began, I see that the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is granting Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Awards.

More obscure Friedrich Wilhelms

Then there are people like the druggist Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, who isolated morphine from opium, and coined the term “alkaloid”; or the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, whom Goethe called “the most congenial philosopher I know.” Or the physicist Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Kohlrausch, whose very accurate measurements helped establish the national standards laboratories. Or the physiologist Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig, the founder of modern renal physiology — who worked with Eduard Friedrich Wilhelm Pflüger on respiration.

Astronomers remember Gustav Spörer for “Spörer's Law” (which has to do with sunspots). He was really Friedrich Wilhelm Gustav Spörer. [In accord with Stigler's Law of Eponymy, Spörer was the person who discovered the Maunder Minimum; and Spörer's Law was actually discovered by R. C. Carrington (according to Wikipedia).]

And Ernst Friedrich Wilhelm Klinkerfues, who was Gauss's assistant at Göttingen. He eventually became head of the department of practical astronomy in the Observatory there (some years after Gauss's death), discovered six comets, and computed the orbits of several comets. His enormous textbook on astronomy is still occasionally mentioned.

No doubt you know of some still more obscure figures with this pair of names. For example, just today I came across Friedrich Wilhelm Barfuss, whose work on atmospheric refraction was recommended to the Astronomische Nachrichten by F. W. Bessel — bringing me back to the incident that started me on this path. This was the “straw that broke the camel's back,” and prompted me to set this all down at last.

Why so many Friedrich Wilhelms?

But I haven't explained why  there are so many Friedrich Wilhelms. Surely all these people are ultimately named after some prominent historical figure, aren't they?

Indeed they are. There was a whole series of Friedrich Wilhelms who were kings of Prussia:

Friedrich Wilhelm IV (1795 – 1861)
son of . . .
Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770 – 1840)
son of . . .
Friedrich Wilhelm II (1744 – 1797)
great-grandson of . . .
Friedrich Wilhelm I (1688 – 1740)
grandson of . . .
Friedrich Wilhelm (1620 – 1688)
known as “the Great Elector”.

(I should explain the “Elector” business: these crown princes of the Holy Roman Empire were “electors” in the sense of having a vote in choosing the next Emperor.)

These Hohenzollerns were the founders of the German state. So it's a fair bet that the fathers of the various modern Friedrich Wilhelms named above were partisans of German nationalism.

So there are probably more Friedrich Wilhelms to come. Watch for them.

© 2003, 2005 – 2009 Andrew T. Young

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