Interview with Dr Wolfgang Fritsche, Honorary President of FECS
On 21 January 2020, Pilar Goya, President of EuChemS, and Wolfram Koch, Executive Director of GDCh, carried out the following interview with Dr Wolfgang Fritsche. This was held in connection with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of EuChemS, since Dr Fritsche is one of the founders of FECS (Federation of European Chemical Societies), a predecessor organisation of EuChemS.
First of all, let me on behalf of EuChemS, thank you for accepting to talk to us; I am really interested in meeting you and I have been reading your address on the 25th anniversary of FECS which was held in Prague.
Prague was the city where the Federation of European Chemical Societies was founded. And I tell you the story… The idea to create a federation was risen by the British Doctor Eric Parker who was the Secretary General of the Royal Institute of Chemistry. It doesn’t exist any longer since the Royal Institute of Chemistry and the Chemical Society were two different scientific societies in Great Britain from which the Royal Institute of Chemistry had more of a professional touch. And now they are joined and are the Royal Society of Chemistry. In the beginning, only societies from Western Europe were involved and they invited us secretary generals of the Western European societies. However, I said I only agreed with founding a Federation of European Chemical Societies if we include the Eastern societies behind the Iron Curtain. And It was very difficult for me to convince these people that Chemistry is a science and not a political issue. And so, I succeeded in including the Eastern societies. And so, the founding of the Federation took place in Prague. Dr Parker, was very active in creating the Federation, and he was the General Secretary of the Federation at the beginning, for some time until I took over in 1976.
And then you celebrated the 25th anniversary also in Prague where you gave the anniversary address from which I have learned so much about FECS. For example, the way you dealt with all aspects of Chemistry was really in advance of your time. I mean, you already had chemistry and the environment, cultural heritage. As a matter of fact, we still have more or less the same Divisions and Working Parties.
Yes, and we also had a professional affairs division.
What was it exactly?
To compare the qualification in Chemistry in the different countries. And we always insisted that the German Diplom Chemiker which due to the Bologna process is no longer there, should be the centre of the comparison. And that worked, in a way, for a while. I don’t know what happened after I left.
That kind of structure we don’t have anymore. And then at the beginning I think there were somewhat 17 societies?
I really do not remember because it is about thirty years that I retired, 1991. It’s a long time, but it was a real challenge at that time. We founded the Federation. And in the beginning, there were only Western members, until I said we should include the Eastern societies. And then they joined, particularly the Hungarian Chemical Society was very active. And so we decided that the secretariat of the Federation should be divided in two parts: one in Frankfurt, which was taken over by me and one in Budapest, which was taken over by Dr Miklos Preisich.
And you did not have an established budget?
No. Each society paid what they were able to. You know, German Chemical Society is always a very powerful society in comparison with the others, except the British. And so we took it. I had one secretary that was employed only for the Federation for the beginning. I can´t remember how long, but quite a number of years. Because it was very much work. Then the Asian chemical societies wanted to create something akin to FECS and they invited me to initiate this. And so, I also made statutes for the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies.
That is FACS, Federation of Asian Chemical Societies, and it still exists.
I don´t follow it closely now, but until about two or three years ago, I still got Christmas greetings from the Princess Chulabhorn from Thailand who played a very important role. She was very active. They visited us here. We always had very intense personal contacts with all these people who were very, very nice.
And what was your relation with the chemical industry?
They supported us because we were a scientific society. I mean, the chemical industry in Germany took great part in promoting our aims, but this is not active anymore because the bosses of the large chemical companies are no longer chemists as they were at that time. It was very different then. Profesor Winnacker who was President also of the German Chemical Society, he was the chairman of Hoechst and a chemist; and the follower, Professor Hilger also a chemist, a co-student of me in Bonn… I studied in Bonn and he was also there. So we had a network for some time soon, Dr Munde, Managing Director of the Verband der Chemischen Industrie (the German Chemical Industry Association), also a co-student in Bonn.
Yes, these times have changed.
That is true. It is clear to me, when I read the Nachrichten aus der Chemie (the GDCh membership magazine).
So you still read things on Chemistry, so you try to keep up?
Yes, but I’m not interested in the details anymore. It’s too different from that time. I mean it was a time rather close to the end of the war. There were still certain differences between British and German, and Dutch and German, and Polish and German, and Czech and German. But we brought it all together in the Federation. And it was very, very nice. And a few years later, also the Soviet Union was represented.
“Chemistry is a science and not a political issue.”
Yes, I think it was a great idea because it was not only East and West, but also within the West.
Yes, that´s what I mean, even within the West. It worked perfectly in the beginning.
If I remember correctly, the only Eastern country that did not join was East Germany. Is that right?
Yes, but they joined at the very end.
Why? Why was that? What was the problem for the East Germans?
That you must ask the East Germans. They didn’t get the permission from the government, I believe.
So that was different in the other countries of Eastern Europe?
Yes, and I remember it was at a meeting in Budapest, one of the last meetings I took part in, there were the East German representative Professor Fanghänel and a lady, which is now in GDCh.
She is no longer. I know who you mean. Frau Kiessling.
She was the secretary of the Eastern society, I forgot her name now, but she lives not far away from here. And I met these too, for the first time in Budapest. It was one of the last Federation meetings before the end of the separation wall came down. And then they joined us.
Another thing that is very much ahead of your time and in which I think that you were pioneers, is that you already had a code of conduct and were worried about ethical issues.
Yes. That is true. As I said at the beginning when you came in, not only the code of conduct, but also the comparison of the qualifications in Chemistry. That was also a very important issue for us. So that students could change from one country to the other if possible.
And what were your relations with IUPAC, who were “older”?
Very friendly, there was no interference. Very special, very good.
And you had contacts with them?
Definitely. I was also in the Executive Committee of IUPAC for some time. I was not the only one, of course. There were also other people in IUPAC.
And with the American Chemical Society, at that time?
I was against the American Chemical Society, joining the Federation of European Chemical Societies, I was against it.
But did they want that?
They wanted it. I remember there were quite a number of people in Europe who agreed to it. And I said it is not. We had friendly relations, but they didn’t become members. It was the same with the Israel Chemical Society because we said we are European Chemical Society, a geographical body.
So, Israel did not join either?
Later. They did, yes.
Now just as Turkey did?
Yes. Also, Turkey. But I think the Turks joined before Israel.
That I don’t know. I only know that both of them are members.
I remember Turkish people in our Executive Committee. But it’s too long to remember the details.
And do you see a problem with Brexit? For the future of what the Federation is now?
No idea. I cannot say what will happen. But I must say that the British gave plenty of help to the Federation. From the very beginning.
How long were you in charge of FECS?
Until I retired at GDCh, so it must have been in 1991.
So, you were there from 1970 to 1991. Twenty years.
I was there very long. We even had a lady in the bureau down in Frankfurt which was almost only working for the Federation.
Yes, she still telephones me for my birthday.
You know, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary in Prague also in July, where it all started at the very same day exactly. Same place, same date as 50 years ago. And of course we would like to invite you.*
Thank you, but I will not be able. You know, I am quite well. But I’m 92. And I feel that every day, particularly in the morning although I still get up early.
“I think it was rather successful, and now you celebrate 50 years.”
OK, but nevertheless, you will be with us. We will put some of your words if you allow us?
That will be very kind. Please give my greetings to the assembly, although I don’t know if there will be many which will remember me.
But certainly, there will be some. And everybody will have heard about you because you are the founding father of EuChemS.
So, one of them.
Yes. One of them. But an important one.
As I said before, I was the one who insisted that Eastern European chemical societies would be included.
So, you played a very important role.
Not me, our society, which stood behind me. I must say I represented one of the largest chemical societies in the world, together with the British in Europe, and also the Austrians were very active in a way. But it depended in particular on certain persons in Austria, also in Poland and so on.
So, you brought up this Steering Committee?
That was before the foundation. I cannot remember exactly but then we made statutes even and we met sometimes in the East and other times in the West, alternately. And then we decided that the foundation of the Federation should take place in Prague in an Eastern country.
Prague has always played a very important role. And you said also Hungary?
Hungary, Dr Miklos Preisich; at the beginning, we still had the Iron Curtain. But as I said, we had two secretariats, one in Frankfurt, and one in Budapest, and we stood in permanent contact. You see, we were rather the more powerful for handling all of these things. But Dr Preisich was very active and very kind, and it was very good cooperation.
And the members at that time from the eastern countries. Did they have many difficulties to travel?
Maybe some of them. But in general, as I said, even the Soviet Union representatives had always permission to take part in the manifestations of the Federation. I mean, that was rather unique particularly because we always said Chemistry is a scientific thing, not a political one.
You had this idea of creating the image of European Chemistry, which is still part of our mission.
I think it was rather successful, and now you celebrate 50 years.
Well, it’s a big success. Absolutely.
Finally, Dr Fritsche showed us the many awards and recognitions he has, and in particular the honorary medal of FECS “For outstanding services to the Federation and for furthering of international cooperation in the field of Chemistry” which we explained to him is the equivalent of our current Service Award, and his nomination from 1993 as Life-long Honorary President of FECS, of which he was particularly proud.
* Due to the circumstances derived from COVID-19, the celebration in Prague will not take place in 2020.