Foreign Refugee Scholars at Wilson : The Rescue of Science and Learning

This is a digitized version of a portion of the 2018 Hankey Center exhibit Wilson in the World, researched and curated by Amy Ensley, Director of the Hankey Center.

Shortly after the rise of Adolph Hitler, all professors of Jewish descent and others considered “politically unreliable” were expelled from the universities in Germany. With the commitment of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars was created to rescue them from the “Nazi fury”.

As the war spread across Europe, refugee scholars fled to the United States with the goal of starting a new life at American colleges and universities, including Wilson.

The rise of the Nazi regime in Germany in 1933 resulted in the dismissal of nearly 40% of the faculty in German universities. The law required that anyone of Jewish descent or married to anyone of Jewish descent, or even anyone deemed “politically unreliable” be removed from their positions so that the totalitarian government could control the indoctrination of students with the Nazi philosophy.

At first, these dismissed professors sought positions in universities elsewhere in Europe. But as the full scope of the danger became clear, refugee scholars and those trying to help them, turned to institutions in the United States. This is how Wilson College came to rescue a Nobel prize-winning physicist, an award-winning author, and five other scholars in an effort known as the Rescue of Science and Learning.

A number of agencies adapted their mission to give aid to refugee scholars and find academic placements for them. These included the Academic Assistance Council of England which soon changed its name to The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Institute for International Education, and the New School for Social Research, which in 1933 established the University in Exile to provide jobs for the displaced scholars. Together, these organizations formed a critical link to save the lives of some of Europe’s most brilliant scholars.

The Rockefeller Foundation had been involved in German higher education since 1923 and provided fellowships to promising scholars and grants for the construction of laboratories. It was Rockefeller officials in Paris who raised an early alarm about what was happening to faculty in Germany.

Administrators at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York felt a need to protect their “investment” in former fellowship recipients, so with the commitment of the Foundation, prominent Jewish New Yorkers in banking and medicine organized the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars. Committee administrators hoped to show that the crisis was “a matter of concern for all Americans who were committed to the preservation of freedom of teaching and learning”.  

The Emergency Committee was led by Stephen P. Duggan and a very young Edward R. Murrow. The two worked to gain visas and work permits, coordinate financial help, and network with US colleges and universities to place scholars.

US immigration law required that foreign faculty have a hiring agreement from a college, before being allowed to emigrate. But as this was the height of the Great Depression and many Americans were without jobs; colleges were afraid of being saddled with a refugee and of being criticized for placing refugee scholars over the unemployed US scholars.

In 1935, Murrow wrote, “The thing that really concerns me, is the general indifference of the university world and the smug complacency in the face of what has happened to Germany. There is a tendency to consider the matter as a Jewish problem and a failure to realize that it represents a threat to academic freedom in this county as well as in Europe. Part of this attitude undoubtedly has its roots in the latent anti-Semitism which in my judgment in increasing very rapidly over here.”

Wilson College Faculty meeting minutes - Oct. 1940

“Desiring to relieve the sufferings of scholars driven from their homes and their work by the totalitarian regimes; and believing that in helping them we are helping to defend the cause of democracy, we the members of the faculty and staff of Wilson College have subscribed the sum of approximately one thousand dollars for the support of a refugee scholar to serve as a guest member of our faculty for the academic year, 1940-41.” 

Wilson hosted seven scholars over the next five years, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Jean Perrin. This exhibit tells their stories.

Ensley, Amy (2019) "Foreign Refugee Scholars at Wilson: The Rescue of Science and Learning"


Amy Ensley, Director of the Hankey Center