Margrethe Bohr and Johannes Pedersen

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Interviewed by
Charles Weiner
Interview date
Tisvilde, Denmark
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Margarethe Bohr and Johannes Pedersen by Charles Weiner on 1971 August 11,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.



Carlsberg Breweries income creates the Carlsberg Foundation; Johannes Pedersen chairman for the five member board; meetings on progress and smaller/larger grants to museums and to individuals; limits to size of grants; grant procedures. The establishment of Bohr’s institute (to reestablish international scientific collaboration); relationship between Harald & Niels Bohr and Martin Knudsen (their views on German inclusion in international scientific unions); United States visits 1923, 1933; life at Bohr’s institute and life at Carlsberg.



This is the 11th August, 1971, and I’m dictating a few notes now, while driving back to Copenhagen from Tisvilde the Bohr family country home in northern Sjaelland, after a 2 1/2 hour visit with Mrs. Margrethe Bohr, Niels Bohr’s widow. Along with Mrs. Bohr was her house guest, Professor Johannes Pedersen, who , from 1933 was — until I guess ‘55, 22 years — was chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation board, the board of Carlsberg Foundation, and five years prior to that was a member of the board before assuming the chairmanship. He is 88 years old, This visit with Mrs. Bohr had been set up after some — an invitation from her, in the early part of my stay here, to come see her some time, if she could be of help, and it was followed up by a specific suggestion by her son Aage Bohr that she might be able to provide some background for the many projects I was working on.

The meeting took place; the conversation took place with myself seated between Pedersen and Mrs. Bohr, over tea, delicious tea and a great variety of pastries, and ended up with a farewell glass of sherry. I’ll describe first the first part of the conversation, which was with Pedersen specifically, in which I asked him several questions about the Carlsberg functions. I did mention that he’s 88 years old, He speaks English well, but not — expresses himself well, but I think — whether it’s a combination of his age or the fact that he hasn’t used English for a while, it takes him a little while to think things through. But he expresses himself very well. The function of the Carlsberg Board, under the wills of Jacobsen, the original owner off the breweries, was to run the Carlsberg breweries (or the purpose of earning, an income from it, and then to use this income for the purposes for which the Carlsberg Foundation was’ created.

Pedersen himself has written, a little on the Carlsberg Foundation which I’ll have to get hold of. I do have a Xerox of a four or five page account, summarizing, things, which I think was the occasion of his presenting the book as a contribution to the work of, the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences, on the occasion in 1942 of the 200th anniversary. But I haven’t, studied the book itself. He described to me the fact that the board, which consisted of five members in the thirties, would meet about once a week at the breweries to talk about the progress, the work that was going on and go forth, and to have an annual meeting late in the fall on innovations in brewing and so forth. He did mention that they got together on certain occasions with the Tuborg breweries which had equal capacity to Carlsberg but has never been quite as successful, and that in those days they had certain arrangements, I‘m not quite sure whether they were marketing arrangements or what, but they were cooperative arrangements. This was a function of the board.

The other function of course was to give out the money, and they have several main divisions. One was the establishment of a national museum at Fredericksborg which deals with the Danish kings, I think in the post-Medieval period, and he, Pedersen was one of the committee, I guess you’d call it, or commission of three that ran that national museum. One person on the committee was a representative of the King. Another was a representative of the Carlsberg Foundation (who for 22 years was Pedersen.) And the third was the director of the Rosenberg Museum in Copenhagen.

He was chairman of this little group, and it was explained to me by Pedersen that he didn’t want, that the director of Rosenborg Museum, his position was established so that the Fredericksborg Museum wouldn’t sort of take predominance over the older Rosenberg Museum which dealt with the earlier kings of Denmark. Incidentally, Niels Bohr himself in the twenties has written in one of the volumes, probably the Rozental volume, I think in Mogen’s Pihl’s paper he mentions that Bohr took an active role in raising funds for the national museum. Now, I’m not quite clear what the relationship is since the Carlsberg Foundation does support the national museum, but we’ll clarify that if necessary some time. I asked Pedersen about the grant system, how it was done, and the Carlsberg Foundation — whether there was any limit to the amount a person could apply for. He said no, that it depended very much on the project. He said a grant, for example, of $100,000 or $150,000, that would be a rather large one, it would require some special consideration; but on the order of $50,000 was not unheard of.

In my glance at the list of grants made by the Carlsberg Foundation to individual scientists, which is annually published as part of sort of the yearbook of the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences, as an appendix to it, when they list each grant made and the purpose of it, I noticed that in the period June 1942 to May 1943, Niels Bohr was given 45,000 Danish kroner for work at his institute for apparatus and so forth, and an additional amount for some assistance with his work. That was a small amount of about five or six thousand kroner… That 45,000 seemed to be (though I didn’t do it systematically, just glancing through the list) a rather large amount compared to the smaller amounts that were given throughout the list.

Pedersen explained, the grants were given to individuals, to an individual for his dispersing, for his institute and so forth, and they were made to all branches — philology and history, the hard sciences and so forth. They were not necessarily for scientists or scholars at universities. They could be for a man, in his own private lab as well. In this case that I mentioned, about the grants to Bohr, there were similar grants to Harald Bohr and he explained that in a few cases, they made grants to supplement the salary that was provided by the university for these professors, that they‘d only done it’ in a few cases, to enable them to devote all of their time to study and to scholarship.

Now, I gather by this he means, he did explain partially that it meant so that they could buy books perhaps, or they could get some, assistance in some of’ their duties which would free their time. He explained that the professor’s pay in those days was not very much. The procedure in getting a grant, I’ll describe now, based on a series of questions and responses, was that an application would be — an announcement, would be made by the Foundation that, as I say, in October, that by so and so date they wanted to receive all applications for grants. But these would be taken in and listed. The name of the requestor, the aim of the grant, and the amount compiled in a certain list. The board would refer to that list, and have the applications in hand, and would meet in October perhaps, late part of October or early November I guess, I’m not sure, to discuss these grants, and to make judgments on the ones that they were sure of — either sure of rejecting or sure of accepting.

Then, about two weeks later, they would meet on the ones on which they had not reached a decision. In the meantime, they would have gathered information, to help them make the decision. I asked him whether they used scientific experts. I didn’t use the term referees, but people in the field who would be able to judge the quality of the work, and he said yes, they did, Although they had on their board, they had three people from the natural sciences, and two from I guess the humanities as a general field, general way of designating the field, and that these positions sometimes rotated.

It’s a simple matter to find out the member of the board through the various periods, from the publications of the Carlsberg Foundation, and of the Danish Royal Academy of Sciences. Sometimes the scientific competence of the board would be sufficient to make a judgment. Other times, as he indicated, they would ask experts in the field. He did say smiling that they knew everyone pretty well anyway and they knew their work in that period. He said that all of Niels Bohr’s grants were accompanied by lengthy written applications and that when Bohr would submit this, then he would see — Bohr would come to talk with Pedersen privately, about why he needed the things, and explain, what it was that he wanted to do, in more detail. He said that Niels Bohr always got what he wanted.

Now, I know from my own digging into the files that there was a certain limit, that the Carlsberg Foundation could support the institute just so much and not anymore, and that perhaps Bohr was aware of the general limits and could make his requests fit into it, and when he felt he wanted some more, he would discuss it with them, and would determine that they probably couldn’t go along with the extra amount and therefore would not submit a proposal. I know this from letters that Bohr wrote to Rockefeller Foundation and other people in the thirties, saying the limit of what Carlsberg can do is so and so.

Anyway, after the second meeting, then letters were to be sent to all of the individuals telling them about the procedures, about the decisions, and as I’ve indicated later in the year, that list of grants awarded was to be published in the Academy Yearbook. I asked him about whether the grantees were required to make annual reports, in terms of accounting for the money spent and also saying what they did in obtaining the original aims of the grant. He indicated that this was not the case, that there would only be a review of what had been accomplished and what still had to be done in terms of the continuation grants, a continuation of a project, but he didn‘t think that there were reports required on the one time projects. I think this is something that can be checked if necessary. But in the case of the Bohr’s Institute, it seemed they were generally continuing, that one thing led right into another.

He doesn‘t have such records. He indicated that the secretary, I think that’s an officer, of the Carlsberg Foundation now might have any kind of records that one might be interested in. Again, I don’t think it’s necessary because I have the basic information I need. He couldn’t remember any specifics about the grant of 150,000 Danish kroner made by Carlsberg in early 1935 to the Bohr’s Institute for the establishment of a high tension laboratory or any real specifics. I think that’s really all the relevant information I can think of as far as Pedersen goes, except that I did not inquire about the origin of his relationship with Bohr and how he knew him and how long they had been friends.

Apparently — of course, they were very close, and the family, Mrs. Bohr still maintains her ties. But he did mention that in 1922 he accompanied Bohr to Gottingen when Bohr gave his lectures there. Pedersen himself is a professor of philology at the University and Semitic languages, and told some fascinating stories, of his studies in the Arabic world and Palestine and so forth, to live in. various Moslem cultures and to learn the Islamic background and learn [???] Amharic and so forth. Now, I’ll start with my account of the conversation more specifically with Mrs. Margrethe Bohr.

I should say that during the conversation I had with Pedersen, she was very helpful. She was interested. She helped clarify things for me in a way that he could understand better in case — because she was completely in tune with what I was interested in and when he would tend to digress, she would help to bring him back. Only in one or two instances did she, feel it necessary to translate into Danish, to clarify a point. In all of her conversation with him, she spoke English, as a courtesy to me, I think, I mean, even in the general social conversation as well. I talked with her. I told her that my major interest was in the development of the Institute, and Bohr’s and the Institute’s relationship to the larger Danish cultural-scientific — social environment, as well as to international aspects of the scientific world. I don‘t think there was a great deal of hard information that I obtained. I seemed not to be wrong in my interpretation and tie facts that I had obtained already and in many cases told her things that were of interest to her which I knew to be facts. But there were a couple of good points that were mentioned and I’ll go over them. I talked with her about the role of Bohr’s friends in helping him get the Institute established, and she mentioned, in addition to Berleme, whose role is well documented because his name appears on the subscription letter raising funds in 1917, and then later; she talked also of a man by the name of Jorgensen (I‘m not sure of the spelling) I think Jorgensen was a lawyer, and I believe both of them were school mates of Bohr from early days.

I brought up the name of Lundsgaard, Christian Lundsgaard who was connected with the Rockefeller Institute in New York in 1923 and served a key role in advising Bohr on getting the grant from the International Education Board for the expansion of the Institute. I asked something about him. She didn’t know really much about his role. She knew that there were four Lundsgaards, a family of them, all connected with scientific work, and that the family — not necessarily were they all brother’s, but somehow related — anyhow the family lived not far from them on Blegaamsvy near the Rigs Hospital. That’s when the Bohr’s themselves lived in the Institute building. I guess prior to Carlsberg, which would have been about1932, I think... prior to their move to Carlsberg.

We, talked about disputes regarding the admission of Germany to the International Research Council and later the International Council of Scientific Unions, and I knew more about the total situation than she did, but she did recall that it was a subject of bitter dispute within the Academy of Sciences in Denmark, and that then ware people who took various sides. Some were adamantly against admitting the Germans, and some were for it. I have just found prior to this conversation with her some stuff which in the history of the Academy, which discusses in detail some of the efforts at getting Denmark prepared for its postwar role as a former neutral land, after World War I and restoring the international scientific collaboration, which took shape in the form of a proposal for an Orsted Institute by Knudsen, as a matter of fact, and I believe it was this Institute which he had in mind for himself and which disappeared from the scene with the reality of Bohr’s Institute. It’s interesting, the subscription letter for Bohr’s Institute uses the same language — that is, the role of the institute in re-establishing the international collaboration that had existed among scientists from different lands, prior to its interruption by the war, which was being kept in effect only though the role of the neutral lands.

Mrs. Bohr suggested that there was considerable concern about limited access to laboratories and to equipment to test theories and so forth, which was a big problem with the world war, and which threatened to be a problem in a divided world after the war; and that this was a partial motivation in building the Institute and the laboratory itself, This to me suggests that there was Danish national self-interest which was one of the motivating things in the international collaboration efforts that were talked about so much during the World War and immediately afterwards, as I’ve earlier mentioned.

I explored a little bit with Mrs. Bohr the attitudes of Martin Knudsen, professor of physic, who got a chair earlier than Bohr, a little earlier, and she indicated that he had — the relationship was not good, that he was sort of a strange men, that he was not really interested in the, modern developments in physics, or in students, and had sort of given up on those things. This corroborates what Nielson has told me, and what I’ve seen in correspondence. Knudsen played an international role as the official delegate of a number of Danish collaborative efforts internationally, including the Danish participation in the International Council of Scientific Unions, and the International Union of Physics. But when I asked specifically whether he was one who was in favor of restricting German entry into these international relations, she didn’t know, and turned to Pedersen who said no, that Knudsen was for German entry, as he was; Pederson himself within the Academy bad voted for tint position. This is borne out by what I read in the Academy records, that Knudsen had advanced schemes for inclusion of Germany. But she maintained that he had certainly not given any vehement support to any of the efforts that Niels and his brother Harald had taken against the exclusion of Germany. But in general, she indicated, that there was an important distinction between Knudsen a position on many issues, and Bohr’s, that there was coolness of relations between them. Another point — I asked about the 1923 United States trip that Bohr took, which I discovered she did not go on with him. Her first visit to the US was 1933.

She recalled Wickliffe Rose visiting in Copenhagen, but she wasn’t able to shed any light on this question Aage Bohr had raised of’ whether the Rask-Orsted Foundation idea had influenced Rose and others, bad influenced the Rockefeller Foundation to embark on a similar program of international fellowships. So far I have no evidence for that. On the 1933 US trip, she was — she went to California of course with Bohr, and she was very much impressed by California. It was the first time she had been that far south and the scenery and everything was interesting. She said that Bohr himself – I asked a loaded question about, Millikan’s activities must have been difficult to cope with, based on what I had understood from Nielsen, and also I think it’s mentioned in the biography by Ruth Moon, that Bohr was sort of put in a difficult position by Millikan’s parading him in front of the trustees. And Mrs. Bohr expressed it well. She said that the institution was privately supported with a lot of associates or trustees, and that everyone was supposed to be nice to them, and Bohr was supposed to be nice to them, and that he was constantly involved with this whereas he wanted to get involved with the scientific work that was there. He did meet Karman, she recalls, or seems to recall, and Tolman and also Charlie Lauritsen for the first time.

She recalls that as far as the Chicago trip goes, the only thing she remembers is that it was very hot, 101 degrees, and that everyone tried to get close to the lake to cool off, that the most impressive thing was her visit to the new Adler Planetarium, where she was just thrilled by the heavenly display, by the moon and so forth; that they visited the houses of some very wealthy people. It was the first time she’d seen houses with swimming pools and air conditioning, and with works of art imported from Europe, pieces of Queen Anne’s palace or something like that. I asked her about the visit to the Rockefeller Foundation that Bohr made in 1933 to see Max Mason, and whether she knew much about it and what he discussed. She doesn’t recall it.

She recalls that he visited but she doesn’t know how long he stayed in New York, whether they were just passing through. She did recall when I mentioned that he did discuss the refugees with him. I knew that based on a letter that he wrote on his return to Heisenberg. She said that when he left Europe, he had a list of refugees with him, that is, people in Germany who needed placement. This fits in with the glimpses that I’ve seen in correspondence with Richardson from Brown, the mathematician, who said he wanted to discuss this with Bohr. We touched on Rasmussen, who, she said her husband really thought very highly of, whom everyone seems to like a great deal, who died early apparently, I mean prematurely; and that her husband relied on him for what she called the practical things of the Institute, the administration of it, that he was really good at it and well liked, and performed a role that she indicates was a unique one and basically there’s been nothing like it since then. I asked her whether Bohr had long range plans and goals regarding the Institute and his own work, and she didn‘t know of that. She thought that he would deal with the problems in hand.

She did say that there was constant expansion of the Institute from the beginning that one seemed to lead into another. I talked with her about life at Carlsberg, and the busy role she must have had and the entertainment with all the people. She said that her husband loved that, that living at Carlsberg gave them the opportunity to have the people around whom he wanted, mathematicians, chemists, physicists, and he wanted to be surrounded by such people at at Carlsberg they had the room for it, so it was quite a natural thing. I pointed out that this seems to be the same motivation in his calling the annual conferences and establishing the Institute in the first place that this was the way he liked to function. I just recalled that she mentioned that in his 1937 trip to Berkeley, delivering of the lectures that he worked very hard on those lectures that many people would come to a place to give a talk but have it already written out, that he never would have time. He would be involved and something would come up so that at Berkeley, for example, he spent nights, late into the night, working on his talks. I think these were what they call the Hutchinson lectures, which we have a tape recording of in the archive. She also commented on her husband’s modesty in asking for grants, that he never seemed to ask for enough and that people had to sort of convince him to up the ante. She recalled that in [???] where they lived, someone, I forget who it was, came to visit and was so impressed that here was an Institute which was so different from all the others that were being built, which had marble staircases and all kinds of fancy things — this was just a plain modest building devoted to scientific work.

In the nature of an anecdote. I also asked about the Festschrift that Aage Bohr had mentioned, the 1955 Festschrift. She has a copy in her apartment. But apparently I was wrong, I had thought it was a rare thing, apparently there are copies around. I must locate some. Oh, I just thought of it, it’s probably — no, there was a memorial volume written called MEMORIAL WRITINGS or something , it was called, in which Lassen has an essay on the cyclotron, but that’s not it. This is a different one, I’m sure. Anyway, I have to locate it.

We talked about Bohr’s use of his time, not only in his scientific work but in all other issues of developing the Institute, getting grants, helping refugees and so forth, and she said that he had enormous amounts of energy, and that he was in very good health, and he used his health, that these things did tire him but he was able to keep up. Anyway, at the moment I can’t think of anything else that came out of the conversation, except that she offered to help in the future, and I should come back and see her and so forth. So that’s all for these notes on the visit.