The "Naturforschende Gesellschaft" (Society of natural scientists) of Halle

This article is a case study of the rise, prosperity and decline of a scientific society that was typical of German university towns from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century. It is based upon the society's records and correspondence preserved in the archive of the academy "Leopoldina" at Halle. The "Naturforschende Gesellschaft zu Halle" has shaped the scientific life of Halle for about 150 years. It was founded in the spirit of the Enlightenment in 1779 by a group of theology students supported by three influential and respected citizens of Halle. One of them, the director of the "Salzamt" (salt administration) Friedrich-Wilhelm von Leysser, became the first president. The beginnings of the society were promising. At weekly meetings members were expected to present papers about their research work. The society's library and its cabinet of herbs and minerals steadily increased by purchases and donations, and many distinguished scientists from outside Halle were elected as honorary members. Most of the 200 members that had joined the society before 1808 were interested in descriptive sciences like botany, zoology, and mineralogy. In the nineteenth century, there was a shift towards mathematical and experimental sciences. A closer look to the source material reveals a remarkable gap between the society's public image and the reality of its scientific life in the last decades of the 18th century. The first journal of the society only ran to one volume, published in 1783, and as the standards of its twenty articles were rather mediocre, it is easy to conjecture about the quality of the papers that were presented during the meetings without beeing published. In a memorandum of 1797, president Leysser complained that the society's local activities were so poor that its decline was quite evident. Meetings were often cancelled because nobody came to them, and only few members were willing to present papers. When Halle was occupied by French troups in 1806, the society stopped its activities for about one year. This interruption was followed by a splendid revival, and the society was going to flourish for more than a century. New statutes were adopted (1808), and the number of members increased quickly. Close links were established with the "Oberbergamt" (mining administration) and with the university. In 1852, most of the members living in Halle were university professors who considered the society as an appropriate audience to present and discuss new ideas and discoveries. Some important achievements by Halle scientists were first presented to the members of the society, such as Schweigger's instrument for measuring weak electric currents, and Dorn's experiments on radioactivity. A new periodical was founded in 1853. 25 volumes of these Abhandlungen der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft zu Halle appeared until 1906. After World War I, the society declined rapidly. The last series of its proceedings ended in 1919, and the last documented meeting was in December 1920. In the address directory of Halle, the society is listed until 1935, and it is uncertain whether it was ever officially dissolved. The society's archive material, including the records of the meetings, its correspondence and book-keeping, were handed over to the academy "Leopoldina" in 1942 by the Goethe scholar and professor of botany Günther Schmid. Some of the society's papers that Schmid had kept for himself were given to the University Library of Halle after Schmid's death in 1949.