Viktor Hamburger and Experimental Embryology - Early Life

Viktor Hamburger was born in Landeshut, Silesia (now Poland) into a middle-class family that was comfortable but not wealthy. He described his childhood as happy, including exploration of the local countryside with its unique geological and fossil deposits, and the flora and rare glacial relics of the nearby Riesengebirgs. His family supported education and his father instilled in him a love of art.

Hamburger recalled an amusing incident from his early collecting experience. “I remember that when I was 15 or 16 years old I explored the fauna of our native ponds in the environment of my hometown Landeshut . . . Freshwater clams and sponges were the rarities, but I was intrigued by the developing frog and salamander embryos and the hatching of larvae. I observed all this in the . . . jelly masses which I brought home and reared in aquaria. I remember that one day young salamanders had metamorphosed and escaped from the aquarium, and in the evening, when my parents had a party, they were crawling up the window curtain . . .”

After a brief stint in the German army near the end of World War I, Hamburger expressed interest in an academic life. His parents suggested that he enroll for the 1919-1920 academic year in the University of Heidelberg where his father’s cousin, Dr. Clara Hamburger (1873-1945) was an assistant to protozoologist Otto Bütschli (1848-1920). Hamburger’s interest in both science and philosophy was stimulated by a seminar he took with embryologist Hans Driesch (1866-1945) and a course in embryology with Curt Herbst (1866-1946). Dissatisfied with the scientific opportunities and lack of good hiking and skiing opportunities in the Heidelberg area, Hamburger learned that the University of Freiburg had just hired a zoologist, Hans Spemann (1869-1941), who was introducing new and exciting experimental techniques into embryology. The prospect of being on the cutting edge of a new field, combined with superior skiing opportunities in the nearby Black Forest, convinced him to continue his studies in Freiburg.