Hannes Richter

University of Vienna: 650 Years

Hannes Richter
University of Vienna: 650 Years

A Brief History

On March 12, 1365, Duke Rudolph IV (the “Founder”) established the University of Vienna, “Alma Mater Rudolphina Vindobonensis” as it has been called by literary sources, along the lines of the Sorbonne in Paris. The members of this “universitas magistrorum et scholarium” (the community of teachers and learners) were initially even exempt from taxes and military service.

Ambitious foundation endeavor

The two deeds of foundation – a Latin and a German version – bear the symbolic date of March 12 (St. Gregory). They enabled the Austrian Duke Rudolph IV to pave the way for the foundation of the University of Vienna in the Spring of 1365. The official foundation of the university was preceded by protracted negotiations with the Curia on obtaining the necessary papal agreement. This was an ambitious endeavor as only emperors and kings enjoyed the exclusive privilege of establishing universities in the 14th century.

Reformation – stagnation and dominance of the Jesuits

In the course of the Reformation, starting in 1520, the University of Vienna, a “papal institution”, suffered a great loss of prestige. Due to the First Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1529, recurring epidemics, the city’s economic decline, and the increasing competition between universities, the number of students declined as well. Emperor Ferdinand I tried to counter this development with new reforms and started to turn the University of Vienna into a Catholic stronghold. For this purpose, he installed the Jesuits there in 1551 and gave them two theological chairs.

Consequently, tensions and conflicts between the separate Jesuit school and the university itself arose, making Emperor Ferdinand II pass the 1623 “Sanctio Pragmatica.” As a result, the Jesuits were established as teachers at the theological and philosophical faculties of the university, and the student numbers rallied. The Jesuit order was to maintain its dominant position for the next 150 years.

Enlightened Absolutism: The University as an Educational Establishment of the State

In the middle of the 18th century, Empress Maria Theresia ensured that the Jesuits lost a great deal of their former influence on university life, since they had greatly neglected the secular faculties. As both the church and the university’s own administrative bodies were eliminated, the university became an educational establishment of the state, focusing on the education of civil servants and physicians, but not on the education of scholars.

The empress’s personal physician, Gérard van Swieten, was to implement the new reforms. He instituted a marked focus on the medical and natural sciences and laid the foundations of the First Viennese School of Medicine. It was he who transferred the training of the students of medicine to the patients’ bedside, and he also established two new chairs – in chemistry and botany. In 1754, the Botanical Garden of the University of Vienna was opened (on Rennweg). Joseph II continued the reforms of Maria Theresia, abolishing both academic jurisdiction and official attire. His laws of tolerance enabled Protestants to enroll at the university for the first time in 1778, while in 1782 Jews were admitted to studies in medicine and law.

In 1783, German was introduced as the compulsory language of instruction. The General Hospital and its university clinics were opened in 1784. It gradually became a major European medical research center where numerous outstanding physicians laid the foundation for the First Viennese School of Medicine (Theodor Billroth, Karl Rokitansky, Ignaz Semmelweiß, among others).

1867: “Science and its teaching are free”

The year of the revolution of 1848 had a considerable influence on the University of Vienna. Students demanded freedom of teaching and learning, and the end of any suppression of normal academic life. To this day, the most important success of their endeavors has been article 17 of the Austrian Basic Law, which is still valid today: “Science and its teaching are free.” Minister of Education Leo Graf von Thun-Hohenstein reformed the system of tertiary education radically and invited a great number of professors to Vienna.

The New Main Building on the Ring

In 1884, Emperor Franz Joseph I inaugurated the new Main Building of the University of Vienna on the Ringstrasse, which had been built by Heinrich von Ferstel. This splendid Historicist building was designed to resemble the renowned Italian Renaissance universities. However, it could never lay claim to be the central building for the whole University even in the early days, and there was never enough room for all departments. The aspirations of the Viennese Medical School required more space, and by 1915 numerous additional buildings had been erected in the vicinity of the Main Building to house additional departments

Women at the University of Vienna

It was 532 years after its foundation when the University of Vienna permitted women to enter its halls as students in 1897, although initially only at the Faculty of Philosophy. This was followed by the Faculties of Medicine (1900), Law (1919), Protestant Theology (1928), and Catholic Theology (1945). Gabriele Possanner von Ehrenthal, who had studied medicine at the University of Zurich and had obtained a doctorate there, was the first woman to earn a doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1897. In 1907, Elise Richter, who had enrolled in Romance Languages and Literature in 1897, was the first woman to be awarded a habilitation degree, i.e. the venia docendi, at the University of Vienna. She was also the first woman to be appointed associate professor at the University of Vienna in 1921.

The first woman to be appointed to a chair was the physicist Berta Karlik in 1956. A gap of almost half a century separates Elise Richter’s habilitation and Berta Karlik’s appointment to a chair. This gap was the result of the National Socialist regime that interrupted the careers of many pioneering women. In 2010, more than 50% of the doctoral candidates and graduates and 37% of the habilitated scholars were women. Only 25% of the professors in 2013 were women.

Period of political oppression and transition from 1914-1945/55

The rapid growth of the University of Vienna plummeted during the First World War: the Main Building was now used as a military hospital, with the Große Festsaal (Main Ceremonial Chamber) functioning as a dining hall and lounge, and the Kleine Festsaal (Small Ceremonial Chamber) and numerous lecture rooms as operating theatres.

After the collapse of the AustroHungarian Empire, the University of Vienna facilitated the institutionalization of anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and totalitarian ideas and politics in the 1920s and 1930s. The ideas of Austrofascism and National Socialism fell on fertile ground as there were enthusiastic supporters and bystanders having an ambivalent role. They encountered very little resistance and there were hardly any defenders of democracy and of the young Republic, which was seen by many as destined to fail after having lost the vast hinterland of the imperial crownlands. Both systems had severe and far-reaching consequences for the University.

In 1938, after the Anschluss, Austria’s annexation to the German Reich, any dissenting voices were quickly silenced, the result being academic mass exodus: 45% of all professors and lecturers (about 320 people) were dismissed on political or “racial” grounds and approximately 23% of all students (about 2,230 people) were expelled. Furthermore, the academic degrees of over 230 people were rescinded. By the end of the Second World War, the Main Building had been hit by 26 bombs.

By the end of May 1945, lectures had started again, despite reconstruction work. The de-nazification of the University of Vienna’s teaching and student bodies lasted until the 1950s; however half of the professors who had sympathized with Nazi politics continued their university career.

Education boom and expansion Free university admission in the 1970s triggered an educational boom and resulted in a vast expansion of the University of Vienna. Increasing numbers of students necessitated the construction of new buildings and the redevelopment of old ones: Neues Institutsgebäude (New Institute Building, 1962), Centre for Sport, Science and University Sports (Auf der Schmelz, 1973), Universitätszentrum Althanstrasse (University Centre, 1982), Juridicum (Faculty of Law, 1982), Betriebswirtschaftliches Zentrum (Faculty of Business, Economics and Statistics, 1991–2013), Vienna Biocenter (Dr.-Bohr-Gasse, 1992), University Campus on the premises of the former General Hospital (1998), and the Hörsaalzentrum (lecture hall center) on the Campus (2003).

21st century: Re-organization and status quo

With the Universities Act of 2002, all Austrian universities became autonomous, and therefore more self-dependent and performance-orientated. For the University of Vienna, this meant total re-organization: by January 1, 2004, the Faculty of Medicine became a separate university. Currently, the University of Vienna comprises 15 faculties and four centers. About 88,000 students can choose from more than 180 degree programs. About 9,700 employees, 6,900 of whom are academic, are employed at more than 60 locations of the University of Vienna.

The University of Vienna and its U.S. Partner Institutions

The University of Vienna - U.S. Partner Universities

(This text was originally published by the University of Vienna.)

Nobel laureates and the University of Vienna

Nine scientists associated with the University of Vienna, through either research or teaching, have been awarded the Nobel Prize, the most renowned award in academia:

  • Robert Bárány, otology (1876 – 1936) 1914: Nobel Prize for Medicine
  • Julius Wagner-Jauregg, psychiatry (1857 – 1940) 1927: Nobel Prize for Medicine
  • Hans Fischer, chemistry (1881 – 1945) 1930: Nobel Prize for Chemistry
  • Karl Landsteiner, immunology (1868 – 1943) 1930: Nobel Prize for Medicine
  • Erwin Schrödinger, physics (1887 – 1961) 1933: Nobel Prize for Physics
  • Viktor Franz Hess, physics (1883 – 1964) 1936: Nobel Prize for Physics
  • Otto Loewi, physiology and pharmacology (1873 – 1961) 1936: Nobel Prize for Medicine •
  • Konrad Lorenz, biology (1903 – 1989) 1973: Nobel Prize for Medicine
  • Friedrich A. von Hayek, economics (1899 – 1992) 1974: Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences