Professor Gotthilf Hempel pictured during the 87th edition of his scientific "Dämmerschoppen" | Photo: Matthias Sabelhaus

08.03.2019 | He is one of the most important contemporary witnesses of German marine and polar research after the Second World War. He has built and shaped four internationally recognised marine research institutes in Bremen, Bremerhaven, Kiel and Warnemünde. He has spent 1000 days on research vessels in all directions of the compass – in the Antarctic and Arctic, the tropics, in the North and Baltic Seas. He was one of the first scientists on the island of Helgoland. He has conducted research, taught, written, held speeches and given advice and still advises and speaks and writes about the marine worlds that are his life. Gotthilf Hempel is the wise old man of the seas.

For Gotthilf Hempel there was a life before the sea. Born in Göttingen on 8 March 1929, he grew up in a family of theologians, experienced the wartime bombing during his school years in Berlin and the refugee turmoil of the war’s aftermath. After his Abitur (university entrance diploma), he studied biology and geology in Mainz and Heidelberg. At the age of 23, he became engaged to Irmtraut Schneider, a fellow student. After completing his dissertation on the locomotion speed and metabolic rate of insects in relation to body size, he received a post-doctoral fellowship from the German Research Foundation (DFG). In 1952 he went as postdoc to the Max Planck Institute for Marine Biology in Wilhelmshaven – a stroke of luck for marine research, he says, because he ended up at the sea only for health reasons and therefore became a marine biologist instead of a zoologist.

On to the sea

In Wilhelmshaven he became acquainted with Adolf Bückmann, an internationally renowned and well-connected fisheries biologist, from whom he learned to love rough seas and their fish. Hempel defied seasickness on cutters and fishery protection boats and, in the early 1950s, familiarised himself with oceanography on research cruises in the North Sea and North Atlantic with the surveying vessel Gauss of the German Hydrographic Institute (merged in 1990 with the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency, BSH). Herring and their spawn become his specialty. From Wilhelmshaven the young scientist, together with Irmtraut, whom he married in 1952, followed his mentor Bückmann to Hamburg to the Institute of Hydrobiology and Fisheries Science of the University of Hamburg. Because Bückmann also expanded the Biological Institute Helgoland (BAH), Hempel was one of the first scientists and civilian residents on the rugged North Sea island in 1959 after the withdrawal of the British military. Bückmann's international contacts and early experiences of close cooperation between the university and non-university research institutes shaped the young fisheries biologist, who during this time was also able to spend time conducting research in England, Scotland and Norway, and who became a member of the Advisory Committee on Marine Resources Research (ACMRR) of  the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO),  where he met the world's elite of fisheries research. In the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), of which he became president twenty years later, he learned to present his arguments in English. However, his English pronunciation has remained “teutonic” to this day, as he himself says.

In 1964 Gotthilf Hempel qualified to lecture at professorial level (Habilitation) at the University of Hamburg. In three subsequent years, he expanded his horizons as a substitute professor for limnology in Wisconsin / USA and in Paris at the secretariat of the young Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission  of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO). There he worked to build up marine research in the successor states of former colonies. The experiences gathered during many travels motivated and encouraged the ambitious, young scientist in his view that German marine research requires involvement in the international community and the establishment and development of university-related and globally active institutes in order to enable efficient, collaborative marine research and training on a global basis. "I have a penchant for the international collaboration," says Gotthilf Hempel, who in 1967 was appointed to the Chair of Fisheries Biology at the Institute of Oceanography in Kiel, which he headed from 1972 to 1976 as managing director and where he remained until 1981, at that time establishing and maintaining close international relations.

The years at the Institute of Oceanography were very fruitful. He developed a comprehensive program of lectures, internships, seminars and the particularly popular foreign excursions. Fishery biology was extended to include marine ecosystem research with a focus on marine pollution and overfishing, complex nutrient networks and long-term oceanographic changes – the term climate change had not yet been invented. German and foreign doctoral students worked on topics on their doorstep in the Kiel Fjord, but also far away, e.g. on the coast of Nigeria. Together with the oceanographer Günther Dietrich and the marine geologist Eugen Seibold, he founded one of the first Marine Collaborative Research Centres of the German Research Foundation: The interdisciplinary joint research programme (SFB 95) "Interaction Sea – Sea Bottom" studied the ecosystem of the Kiel Bay from 1971 to 1982. The programme became the breeding ground of a generation of young German oceanographers who later came to populate new institutes in Bremerhaven and Bremen.

Always intellectually restless, he continued to look for new challenges. Gotthilf Hempel spent his 50th birthday on the research vessel Meteor at the Equator. Two years later, a founding phase of several institutes began, which through Hempel’s influence, offered a broad interdisciplinary orientation.

From the equator to the poles

In1981 Hempel became the founding director of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven and established polar research in the Federal Republic of Germany with a focus on marine science. Here he implemented the educational philosophy that had shaped him during his career: Those who lead and conduct research here also teach at the universities of Bremen, Kiel or Oldenburg; the orientation of the research is international and interdisciplinary. With the ice breaker FS Polarstern, large international joint projects could now be undertaken. Thus, German polar research, still in its infancy, quickly assumed an important place in the international community. Hempel travelled the oceans on research vessels with international scientific crews – more than 1000 days on the FS Meteor or FS Polarstern and other vessels. He remembers: “In 1986 we placed the Polarstern” at the disposal of the European Science Foundation for half a year. This EPOS expedition was my most memorable Antarctic expedition.“

Originally, the Alfred Wegener Institute was only planned as an institution for polar research, which, in contrast to the other members of the Antarctic Treaty, would focus primarily on the oceans. Due to the high logistical costs, however, it became the (smallest) major national research institute. Hempel kept close watch on its development for several years; in particular, the recruitment of an excellent scientific staff for the then less attractive location of Bremerhaven, demanded his full commitment for several years.

At the University of Kiel, where he remained professor even during his work in Bremerhaven and Bremen, he founded almost simultaneously the Institute for Polar Ecology He became its director in 1982. As a teaching and research institution, the IPÖ is a breeding ground for doctoral students who have their academic home here and collect their research material on the Polarstern  A total of about 70 students have completed their PhD degrees under Gotthilf Hempel in the three decades of his Kiel teaching career. Many have found interesting work in the new institutes, some in other countries or in the administration.

The Springer publishing house in Heidelberg wanted to found a new international journal "Polar Biology" and persuaded Hempel to take over the editorial management assisted by his wife. Since the Hamburg years, the two had already edited a marine journal and smaller institute publications. The scope of "Polar Biology" was one size larger, however, because international demand was growing rapidly. Despite this, the couple held out for 25 years. Irmtraut is her husband's secret editor. There are hardly any of his manuscripts that she has not read critically before publication.

... and back to the tropics

No more cold feet – in 1992 Hempel left the Alfred Wegener Institute after twelve years of polar research in Bremerhaven. At the age of 63, he was drawn to the tropics, and his interest in the development of marine sciences in countries of the Global South in international and interdisciplinary projects was reawakened. Together with the Bremen Senate, he launched the Center for Tropical Marine Ecology (ZMT) – today the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research. The target research areas are the coastal regions of the tropics and subtropics. For this purpose, the institute has three tasks: natural and social science research; ecological education and training, jointly for foreign and German students; and communication and coordination of research projects in partnership in these regions.

Thus, following Antarctica, the Arctic and the South Atlantic, a completely new earth region – the tropical coastlines – came into the focus of the marine sciences in Bremen. The MADAM project (Mangrove Dynamics and Management), a ten-year BMBF funding programme for bilateral cooperation with Brazil, formed an important basis for the establishment of the young institute. In the mid-1990s, research on coral reefs became increasingly important for the ZMT, which from1995 on became responsible for the Red Sea Programme in Marine Sciences (RSP). Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Germans together celebrated the 70th birthday of Gotthilf Hempel on board the Meteor in the Gulf of Aqaba.

For Gotthilf Hempel, the ZMT is the implementation of a mission for which he had already prepared himself during his work in the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (1964 -1966): the consistent and sustainable development of partnerships in the marine sciences. He founded the ZMT expressly with this key objective in mind. What is special about the ZMT is its short set of rules for international cooperation in scientific projects: the so-called "Bremen Criteria". In 1999, these criteria were included in the Code of Conduct of the German Society for Tropical Ecology (GTÖ). In this spirit, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, he donated a prize for the best exam papers of foreign students who come from the tropical countries to Bremen universities.

Hempel’s role in the course of German reunification

Since 1990, in the course of German reunification, he has been a sought-after expert as a member of the German Council of Science and the Humanities, in order to integrate the scientific institutions of the GDR into one scientific system for all of Germany. Together with a working group, he evaluated all academy institutes for geosciences in the broadest sense and travelled all over the former GDR from Rügen to the Erzgebirge. The aim was to strengthen research at the universities and to create new, nationally and internationally competitive research institutions. He endeavoured to proceed as cautiously as possible. At the start of every evaluation, Hempel used a play on the German word Gutachter (reviewer) to relieve the tension. "We are reviewers looking for the good, not the bad," Hempel said. In a second round, a two-volume report on environmental research in reunited Germany was prepared. Hempel attached great importance to involving East German colleagues in the evaluation of West German institutions. After the evaluation, he was responsible for the implementation of the recommendations of the Science Council for the polar and marine research of the GDR. Polar research, which was distributed over several institutes and mostly geoscientifically oriented, was concentrated in the newly created Potsdam Research Centre of the Alfred Wegener Institute. The Institute for Oceanography of the GDR in Rostock-Warnemünde was converted into the Institute for Baltic Sea Research (IOW), today the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research Warnemünde. After the appointment of the designated director fell through, Hempel became director of the IOW until 1997, which quickly played an essential role in the network of German marine research. At the same time, however, the IOW sought to further develop its old contacts with research partners in the eastern Baltic Sea. Old relations to Namibia in the upwelling area of the Benguela Current were revived with new sources of funding. The result was a fruitful cooperation between the IOW and the young ZMT in Bremen.

The dramatic development in the second half of the 20th century and the role of marine research in Germany today, which plays a decisive role internationally, cannot be separated from the name Gotthilf Hempel. For many years he was chairman of the central West German and European commissions for marine research. He advised the Bremen Senate on the expansion of Bremen/Bremerhaven as a science location. For example, he advocated the establishment of a Max Planck Institute in Bremen: The Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology was founded in 1992, one year after the founding of the ZMT.

Gotthilf Hempel has received numerous honours – including in 1993 the Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2004 the Bremen Senate awarded him its Medal for Art and Science, a rare honour in the Hanseatic city, which seldom grants awards. The city of  Bremerhaven made him its honorary citizen. He is a member of the Academia Europaea, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and the German National Academy of Sciences and the Humanities Leopoldina.

The seas, the international institutes in close exchange with university research and education and their strengthening are and remain the most important aspects of Gotthilf Hempel's professional life. He feels most at home among young international marine researchers. He likes to take them on a narrative tour of Bremen and Bremerhaven. His extensive knowledge is also reflected in anthologies on marine biology, for example Faszination Meeresforschung: Ein ökologisches Lesebuch (Fascination Oceanography: An Ecological Anthology), published by Springer, which he jointly edited along with his wife and Sigrid Schiel. He enjoys giving readings from it at events with wine and refreshments.

Irmtraut and Gotthilf Hempel have two sons, five grandchildren, one great-grandson and a shared hobby: monument conservation. For the restoration of the altars of old village churches in Mecklenburg, they set up the Kirche im Dorf (Church in the Village) Foundation and placed it under the fiduciary umbrella of the German Foundation for Monument Protection.

His marine-ecological Dämmerschoppen (Sundowner) discussion events, which the indefatigable scientist initiated in Kiel 40 years ago and which he and his wife relaunched ten years ago in Bremen, are legendary. Once a month he invites around a dozen marine researchers ranging from doctoral candidates to emeritus researchers to a scientific discussion at the ZMT. The topics are as varied as the group itself and range from bacterial life in the sea snow to the usefulness of marine protected areas and the migrations of Peruvian mussel fishermen. The scientific discourse of the Dämmerschoppen not only lives from the collected expert knowledge, but above all from Gotthilf Hempel's moderation with humour, word plays and infectious enthusiasm for research. Crossing disciplinary borders is and always has been the red thread of his thinking, and as a consequence he poses the question: "What use are narrowly defined routes when it comes to the vastness and depth and preservation of our oceans?

Author: Bettina Mittelstrass