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Viktor Hamburger papers

 Record Group
Identifier: MC-MBL-Hamburger-Sci

Scope and Contents

The papers span in date from 1917 to 2000 and consist of correspondence with colleagues, course lecture notes, lecture and meeting notes, writings, and illustrations (including illustrations for two classics of embryology: the article “A Series of normal stages in the development of the chick embryo” and the book A Manual of Experimental Embryology.) Notable correspondents include Johannes Holtfreter (however, with one exception, the letters in the Holtfreter files are photocopies of the originals), Rita Levi-Montalcini, and Jane Oppenheimer.


  • 1917-2000

Conditions Governing Access

Open: materials are available for research.

Biographical Information

Viktor Hamburger was born in the small town of Landeshut, Silesia, in Germany on July 9, 1900, to Else and Max Hamburger. Keenly interested in the natural world from a young age, he went on to study zoology and received his Ph.D. in 1925 from the University of Freiburg where he studied under future Nobel Laureate, Hans Spemann.

In 1932, Hamburger came to the United States on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to work with F. R. Lillie at the University of Chicago, studying chicken embryos. Hamburger had intended to return to Germany at the end of his fellowship, but in early 1933 was informed that he had been “cleansed” from his teaching position at the University of Freiburg because of his Jewish ancestry. Hans Spemann wrote from Germany, advising him to look for a position in the United States.

The Rockefeller Foundation extended Hamburger’s fellowship for another two years after which he found a position on the zoology faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, becoming chair of the department in 1941, and remaining at the university for the rest of his career. From 1937 to 1945, Hamburger spent summers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole as an instructor in the embryology course and later as head of the course.

Viktor Hamburger was a pioneer in the field of experimental embryology. Important areas of study during his long career include the stage classification of normal chick embryo development; the discovery, with Rita Levi-Montalcini, of nerve growth factor (NGF); the study of programmed cell death; and the development of behavior. Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen received the Nobel Prize in 1985 for their work with NGF—work that they had begun with Hamburger—leading many to feel that Hamburger had been unjustly overlooked by the Nobel committee. Hamburger did receive many other honors in recognition of his work throughout his career. Among these, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1953 and awarded the National Medal of Science in 1989. He remained active in scientific research throughout his life, living past his 100th birthday. His ashes are interred in Woods Hole.


10 boxes (six 24" x 12" boxes, two 20" x 11" x 3½" boxes, and two 16 millimeter films)




The papers have been left in their original order and are arranged in reverse chronological order within folders. Folders have been grouped by subject (correspondence, course notes, grants and awards, illustrations, lectures and meetings, oversized material, and writings and biographical material) and arranged alphabetically. Correspondence is arranged alphabetically by author and then in reverse chronological order by item. Illustration folders containing photographs, slides, and drawings are arranged by size and divided between boxes five, six, seven, and eight. The finding aid for the papers and preliminary correspondence index is located in box one.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were donated to the MBL Archives by Viktor Hamburger beginning on November 2, 1995, and later, after his death, by his daughter. Garland Allen, science historian and Professor of Biology at Washington University, helped coordinate the transfer of the papers to the MBL Archives. Some correspondence was withheld from the papers so that the family could examine it before transfer to the archives. A preliminary index to the correspondence folders was prepared by Mathew Davies and Garland Allen.

Related Materials

Viktor Hamburger’s collected reprints are in the MBL Archives. Two 16 millimeter films and books from Hamburger’s personal library were donated along with his papers and are housed in the MBLWHOI Library.

Processing Information

Processed by Diana Carey, June 23, 2003. Finding aid revised by Katy Sternberger, May 2016.

Language of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Marine Biological Laboratory Archives Repository