“I’ll finally retire once I reach the age of 90.” On Prof. Erhard Geißler’s website, this is the final sentence below a summary of the renowned molecular biologist and peace researcher’s 65-year career. We hope that he was only joking, because we would really like to know how this compelling story of a life in research continues. But for now we would simply like to wish Prof. Geißler a very happy birthday: on December 17, 2020 he turns 90.
Geißler was born in Leipzig in 1930. He grew up during the Third Reich and in wartime – and his life was very nearly cut short. At the age of 14 he signed up for the Hitler Youth’s tank destroyer division. “But my mother was a determined lady,” smiled Geißler in a recent speech. “She went to the local authorities and intervened to stop them taking me on.” Geißler left school in 1950, graduating with the Abitur, and began studying biology at Leipzig University. He first came to the Berlin-Buch campus in 1953, to do an internship at the Institute for Medicine and Biology. After a few stations elsewhere, he ended up in the department of the great cancer researcher Arnold Graffi, helping to study the effects of chemical carcinogens on yeast cells.
A relationship that has lasted 67 years
The research institutes in Berlin-Buch became Geißler’s professional home. This is where he experienced the post-war years, the establishment and development of the German Democratic Republic, the Cold War, the upheavals following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and new beginnings in reunified Germany. When the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) was founded in 1992, he became the head of the Bioethics Research Group – a task he devoted his energies to until his retirement in 2000. But to this day, after 67 years, he still has a close relationship with the campus.
“We are very grateful to Professor Geißler for his commitment to the MDC and his dedicated service throughout all these years,” says Thomas Sommer, interim Scientific Director of the MDC. “I have tremendous respect for what he has achieved. Professor Geißler stands for scientific inquiry, cosmopolitanism, a readiness to adapt, and an awareness of history ‒ values that he shares with everyone at the MDC. I warmly congratulate Erhard Geißler on the occasion of his 90th birthday.”
A father figure in Max Delbrück
Geißler’s early days at East Berlin’s Institute for Medicine and Biology were characterized by the vibrant intellectual atmosphere in Graffi’s department, with team members discussing international technical literature and welcoming visitors from all over the world. It was also possible for the Institute’s scientists to visit their colleagues abroad – before the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 that was still relatively uncomplicated. In 1960 Geißler took a study trip to the West German city of Cologne, where the university was just setting up its Institute for Genetics. It was there that he met Max Delbrück, who became something of a father figure to him for the rest of his life, as well as a generous sponsor. Upon his return from the Rhineland, Geißler followed courses on drosophila genetics at Freie Universität Berlin with Professor Herbert Lüers. In the turbulent early years of molecular biology he was already an expert in the field, and after the building of the Wall he joined the newly founded Central Institute for Molecular Biology (ZIM) as the head of the Problem Commission on Nucleic Acid and Viruses.
How it all played out
Looking back on his life, Geißler often mentions two “great strokes of fortune.” One stroke of fortune was being “born later,” which saved him from having to go to war as a soldier, while another was being “born earlier,” which allowed him to have formative experiences and achieve a relatively secure position before the GDR sealed itself off. “We were able to conclude open-ended work contracts, publish without hindrance, travel around the world without too much trouble, and forge contacts with influential colleagues,” Geißler once revealed, in a speech honoring the birthday of his longstanding friend and colleague Professor Heinz Bielka, who passed away recently. His gratitude for having been born at just the right time is apparent in his words. That feeling of gratitude also permeates his autobiography Drosophila oder die Versuchung (Drosophila or the Temptation), published in 2010, which he summarizes thus on his website: “It’s about how everything played out, how fortunate I was, and how I was able to overcome constant obstacles.”
Geißler’s texts are clear and vivid, fast-paced and humorous, and refreshingly personal. Initially he had wanted to be a journalist, and as a young man he wrote for the Leipziger Volkszeitung on a freelance basis ‒ supervised by Bruno Apitz, who went on to write the best-selling novel Naked Among Wolves. Although Geißler subsequently followed a different career path, his daughter Cornelia Geißler inherited his love of writing and went into journalism. She is an editor in the cultural section of the Berliner Zeitung.
Science for all
But even after he had long since decided to pursue a career in research, Erhard Geißler remained committed to sharing knowledge in an entertaining and generally understandable way. He gave popular lectures at Urania (Ost), was active in teacher training and still writes articles for the popular media today. These often deal with bioethics, disarmament policy, peace research – and conspiracy theories.
Interest in ethical issues in the life sciences germinated gradually in the GDR era. In 1965, Geißler was appointed to a full professorship at the University of Rostock. There he tried to conduct research on the genetics of microbes, but this was not possible due to the poor laboratory conditions. Therefore, he moved back to Berlin-Buch with his team in 1971. At the ZIM, he rose to the position of department head – first for somatic cell genetics, then from 1980 on for virology.
A peace researcher in Stockholm
At that time, Erhard Geißler was already heavily involved with the opportunities and risks of genetic engineering. From the 1970s, he was active in the Kühlungsborn Colloquia on philosophical and ethical problems of molecular biology, which continued into the 1990s. “Increasingly, I became interested in how to limit the military misuse of the life sciences,” his website states. In 1983, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) hired him as a biological weapons consultant. Subsequently, Geißler – who was officially permitted by the state to travel to the West – spent a few weeks each year in Stockholm for study purposes. Two years before the fall of communism, he gave up his position at the ZIM to concentrate fully on peace and disarmament policy issues and to write books. As one of the last conferences of the declining GDR, a Kühlungsborn Colloquium was held in September 1990 – no longer financed by the Academy of Sciences of the GDR, but by the Volkswagen Foundation.
This led to the following scene, which the founding director of the MDC, Professor Detlev Ganten, enjoys recounting: “When I first came to Buch in 1992, I held discussions with the staff practically around the clock. My office door was always open and in the evening there would be Flensburger beer and red wine. Erhard Geißler came in once at midnight – he looked like Heiner Geißler! ‘Don’t worry,’ he said and sat down, ‘I don’t want anything from you. I’ve taken care of everything myself.’ Most of those who came to visit me at that time were looking for a permanent position. But Erhard Geißler had already applied to the Volkswagen Foundation for funding for his independent peace research and received an acceptance. All he wanted was an office at the MDC for his project. And that’s what he got – it was a very nice office.”
A clear head and a good friend
Ganten, who was to head the MDC until 2004 and then move on to direct Charité, praises the high-level conferences that Erhard Geißler organized. He once took over a lecture “on a topic that was completely new to me at the time, the contribution of health to peace.” As a GDR citizen, Geißler may not have been an active member of the resistance, the West German says of his East German colleague. “But he always kept a clear head and his thoughts free. He was and is a decent person and a good friend.”
After his retirement at the age of seventy, Erhard Geißler worked as a visiting scientist at the MDC on, among other things, the “HIV-from-Fort-Detrick myth.” According to this theory, the immunodeficiency virus HIV was genetically engineered at the American Biological Weapons Research Institute at Fort Detrick – on behalf of the Pentagon. For years, the East Berlin professor emeritus Jakob Segal had spread what turned out to be an invented story of the AIDS virus as a creation of the class enemy, garnering a blaze of media publicity. In fact, the theory probably originated from a disinformation campaign launched in 1985 by the Soviet domestic and foreign intelligence service KGB, as Geißler was able to reconstruct and present in 2019 in two publications.
Wild rumors about the causes of pandemics abound; coronavirus is the topic these days. Will new speculations present a challenge to Erhard Geißler as a researcher? We hope so and will find out – if we are fortunate.
Text: Lilo Berg