About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« More Handedness | Main | Show What You Know »

October 15, 2006

German, Anyone?

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

Back when I was a first-year graduate student, I had to do something that I'm not sure that folks today have to worry about: pass a German test. Mind you, it wasn't much of a test - you got a passage from a journal article, and could use a dictionary, and you had a couple of hours. Fast page-flipping would get you through it, which is basically how I did it, since I'd only had one semester of the language as an undergrad (and not much of it took). Little did I know that I'd have a year coming up when I'd have to speak the language in order to eat.

You couldn't substitute another language, either, because German is a uniquely important one in chemistry. A lot of the older physical and inorganic (and a huge amount of the early organic) work was done in Germany, which also produced huge reference works like Beilstein, Gmelin, and Houben-Weyl. But perhaps all the verbs in those sentences should be in the past tense, because both of those references are now appearing in English.

Beilstein switched over with the 5th printed supplement, which appeared only after massive delays which led many scientific libraries to give up on their subscriptions. At one point, the print edition was a good thirty years out of date. Organic grad students had regarded Beilstein with awe back in the 1950s and before, but by the 1980s many of them had never used it. The switch to electronic database searching, which was done in English right from the start, brought them back to relevence. Now libraries are having to remind people that the computer-based service used to be part of a printed handbook.

Houben-Weyl, for its part, switched to English in 1990 or so, but that doesn't seem to have raised its profile in the non-German-speaking world. I recall a Dylan Stiles post where he didn't seem to have heard of the work, for example. The publishers finally caught on to the fact that printed reference works are in trouble, and have moved into the electronic age.

So, here's a question for the grad-student readers: does anyone have to take a German exam any more? The importance of the language in chemistry has been in steady decline for decades, and (if anything) accelerated decline for the last fifteen years. And if you do have to take a test, does anyone at your department still know why?

Comments (33) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School | The Scientific Literature


1. Paul on October 15, 2006 10:37 PM writes...

No language requirements at Harvard, and the faculty ditched cumulative exams last year. Making it even easier is the fact that we only have to take four courses to satisfy classroom requirements. I imagine you all had it much worse back in the day.

Permalink to Comment

2. Propter Doc on October 15, 2006 10:45 PM writes...

I finished my undergrad in Scotland early this decade and there were no language requirements. I then went on to require a large number of old and modern journal articles during my PhD that were in German. High School German and a good dictionary won that battle, and I quickly became translator for the group. The undergrad requirements were all about very basic maths and basic English standards. German was but a far off dream!

Permalink to Comment

3. Grad on October 15, 2006 10:57 PM writes...

No German exam here. But my undergrad chemistry department had a language requirement (that wasn't just university wide gen. ed.) You had to get departmental permission to take anything but German for it. Although to my knowledge all that really took was asking. They didn't have a graduate german test at all.

Permalink to Comment

4. Guy on October 16, 2006 7:48 AM writes...

No exams at my university... including cumulative, though there are rumblings of expanding the class requirements as part of an NIH grant for interfacialmultidisciplinarybuzzwordbusywork. Thusly, we shall be marinated in easily forgotyen powerpoint slides and kept out of the lab that much longer. If I had my druthers, I'd tell the NIH to shove it, and run the place the way it should be run, not to specifications of the carrot and stick toting wallet brigade. But no one asks us if it's a good idea, just if we have enough time to put on the dog and pony show necessary to get the money.

Permalink to Comment

5. Guy on October 16, 2006 7:50 AM writes...

No exams at my university... including cumulative, though there are rumblings of expanding the class requirements as part of an NIH grant for interfacialmultidisciplinarybuzzwordbusywork. Thusly, we shall be marinated in easily forgotyen powerpoint slides and kept out of the lab that much longer. If I had my druthers, I'd tell the NIH to shove it, and run the place the way it should be run, not to specifications of the carrot and stick toting wallet brigade. But no one asks us if it's a good idea, just if we have enough time to put on the dog and pony show necessary to get the money.

Permalink to Comment

6. tom bartlett on October 16, 2006 8:12 AM writes...

"No language requirements at Harvard, and the faculty ditched cumulative exams last year"

No cumes? That's the trouble with liberal arts schools-- no academic standards..

I DID have a German requirement in Grad School. I have NOT really NEEDED German since, for the reasons Derek outlines. In Big Pharma, also, translators are easy to come by, if needed.

I have concerns, though, about language requirements in general at the pre-college level. I think it is valuable to get some exposure to foreign language, even if you never get fluent. Heaven knows, I couldn't pick a German Newspaper and get much out of it. Unfortunately, I think many programs have been whittled down to pretty much Spanish-only which is REALLY useless in academia or Pharma-- I know of NO journals in that langauge.

Permalink to Comment

7. syregnask on October 16, 2006 9:59 AM writes...

No German requirements here, and since it has become known around the department that I read the language every once in a while a fellow student will come knocking on my door kindly asking me to translate various parts of works written in German.

Permalink to Comment

8. columbia on October 16, 2006 10:07 AM writes...

Columbia has it

Permalink to Comment

9. Scott on October 16, 2006 10:25 AM writes...

I didn't have to pass a German requirment in either undergrad or grad school, but ended up learning it by choice after I went to work for the US branch of a German chemical company.

Permalink to Comment

10. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on October 16, 2006 11:21 AM writes...

"I think many programs have been whittled down to pretty much Spanish-only which is REALLY useless in academia or Pharma"
In Pharma, you might have to write a label in Spanish or deal with regulators from a Spanish-speaking country. As for academia, if you think Spanish is useless there you really are ignorant about liberal arts.

Permalink to Comment

11. Timothy on October 16, 2006 11:21 AM writes...

I can't speak to this, other than to note that my last roommate in college was a biochem major and when she was taking O-Chem one of the references was some 25-volume thing that wasn't online...all but volume 5 in German. Lucky for her she was fluent.

Permalink to Comment

12. sarah on October 16, 2006 11:23 AM writes...

No requirement at any of the big state schools I looked at! I had a Spanish minor -- which one commentor points out as irrelevant -- but I think any sort of language exposure makes it much easier to pick up another one if needed. The faculty also ditched cumes just this year, my class was the last to take them.

My undergrad advisor (now in his early 40s) had a German requirement at UIUC, in the late 80s I guess.

Permalink to Comment

13. tom bartlett on October 16, 2006 11:29 AM writes...

"I think many programs have been whittled down to pretty much Spanish-only which is REALLY useless in academia or Pharma"

"In Pharma, you might have to write a label in Spanish or deal with regulators from a Spanish-speaking country. "

Not in Discovery.

I'm bemoaning LACK OF CHOICE. If I'd had German in grade school (instead of high school, where I had 5 choices of language), I might be fluent.

Permalink to Comment

14. turnert on October 16, 2006 12:47 PM writes...

I did have a language requirement in college- French, German or Russian. Not until I graduated, got a job in Big Pharma and then went on to grad school did my alma mater allow Spanish as a requirement for a BS in Chem. Could be the fact that I went to college in Texas?

No requirement in grad school...though English should be a requirement for some (native and non-native born).

Permalink to Comment

15. Anonymous on October 16, 2006 12:50 PM writes...

No German required at UIUC, but it is occasionally alluded to that there used to be one.

Permalink to Comment

16. DerekF on October 16, 2006 1:12 PM writes...

When I did my masters' in New Zealand, I did German (and in much the same way Derek Lowe describes it). At the University of Virginia in the 70's, you had to do two languages, but could substitute a "skill" (basic electronics was the one I did) for one of them. The other was mandated to be science-relevant, but was not limited to German - I did Japanese, since I read that far better.

Permalink to Comment

17. sciwriter on October 16, 2006 1:28 PM writes...

i did my grad work at northwestern and as of the late 90s, there was thankfully no language requirement (though I did have to take cumulative exams). not that i have a problem with learning another language (speak french and spanish), but of outside of accessing archives in german, it isn't the most useful language-- i would have been pretty annoyed to undergo the ruse of learning enough to translate using a dictionary.

i remember a family member having to take that ridiculous german test in chemistry grad school at UW-madison in the late 80s.

Permalink to Comment

18. Cryptic Ned on October 16, 2006 1:58 PM writes...

I'm told that in physics at Pitt you have to take a certain amount of either German or Russian.

Permalink to Comment

19. Yttrai on October 16, 2006 3:09 PM writes...

I (undergrad class of 1990) didn't have to take a test, per se, because we were required to take a _class_. It was taught by our lab instructor (Rudy Goetz, for anybody who went to MSU), and it was solely a class on how to use the paper version of Beilstein, and the basics of chemical German. There was an exam at the end of the class, and a few quizzes and midterms, so technically my answer is yes.

Also, Chem undergrads at MSU needed a year of either German or Russian. Given that we took the lab German class, i opted for Russian, and was thrilled with my choice. There are enough references in Russian out there that i was a hot commodity in grad school, being one of few who did not take German.

Permalink to Comment

20. David Fleck on October 16, 2006 6:51 PM writes...

Not chemistry, but when I got my MS in biology we had to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language - most people (including myself) weaseled out of it by using a computer language.

While I was working on my doctorate, the department had a requirement that you demonstrate proficiency equivalent to completing a fourth-semester class in the language of your (or your committee's) choice. Halfway through the semester in which I was taking the class to complete this requirement, the department dropped it.

I finished the class anyway.

Permalink to Comment

21. columbian on October 16, 2006 10:44 PM writes...

Columbia got rid of the German requirement last year, but apparently it was the same as your experience (dictionary, one article, ridiculous amount of time). I'm just happy that I started when I did and got out of it... Of course, I'm still stuck with our antiquated cumes and five course requirements...

Permalink to Comment

22. Famous Belgian on October 17, 2006 1:23 AM writes...

nope, no language requirements at college level in Be, but then again they are not really necessary since most college level students here have already quite good knowledge of dutch-french-english-german and often spanish after secondary school here (one nice side-effect of being in a small country in the centre of the EU that has been conquered by about every other european country :) ).

Permalink to Comment

23. daen on October 17, 2006 10:08 AM writes...

I wish I'd had the option of learning Danish at school (seeing as I live in Copenhagen now). But the choice at the time was German or Latin; I chose Latin, on a whim (German sounded like hard work). Latin turned out to be fun, even if I wasn't much good at it. I seem to remember spending a disproportionate amount of time listening raptly to the dirtier Greek and Roman myths ...

Permalink to Comment

24. Ψ*Ψ on October 17, 2006 10:11 AM writes...

...So, with all of the above posts in mind, is it worthwhile for me to learn German as an undergrad? Or am I better off taking more advanced chemistry courses instead?

Permalink to Comment

25. Derek Lowe on October 17, 2006 10:22 AM writes...

For science, I wouldn't recommend German any more. It can come in handy, but it's not the major advantage it was many years ago.

Permalink to Comment

26. eugene on October 19, 2006 9:05 AM writes...

No requirement at my grad school for German. I speak it though, since I used to live and work in Germany. It's a really useful language to learn if you're in the EU, especially if you're British or Eastern European and are thinking of moving to the biggest economy in the EU after you're done your chemistry studies for a job. I mention 'British' too because most Brits don't want to live in Britain.

I don't know how much you'll use it on your job at a big chemical company, but in the relatively big city I lived in, the moment you left the train station and beyond a 300 meter radius, nobody could really speak English (beyond 10 words). At all... That was five years ago. Maybe things changed. Though... I've never really been to Urup outside of Hannover (too busy with work and no compulsion to leave the comfort of Hannover city limits) and I get most of my info from Die Zeit.

I am really grateful for my knowledge of German, since there are a few preps that if you look at the original, and not at the translated abstract, there will be a few words that will really alter what you have to do in your reaction if you want it to work. Old Berichte prep articles like to stick as much info into them as possible, making every single word crucial if you're looking for something obscure. French is really useful too for some preps in old Dutch journals. Russian I can't get at this university library unless it's by request, but the original Chichibabin amination procedure did clear up a few questions. Spanish and Japanese I don't know. I'd imagine the latter to be more useful, but I forgot all of it.

The reason to learn languages, is to stave off that dreaded Alzheimer's that Derek has been working on. I read somewhere that the more languages you know, the less Alzheimer's you get, so I'm trying to get less Alzheimer's. If I do get it, I'll probably shoot myself before cursing myself out for the wasted effort. Although, they never did a study if it was just languages, or if you had to be sophisticated and care about other cultures or some such as well...

Permalink to Comment

27. Denni on October 19, 2006 1:19 PM writes...

I'm still looking in vain for any translation work, so my German is next to useless, jobwise. But it's my mothertongue. If it weren't for that, I would definitely advise against learning it: not even I speak it well ;)

When I was young, there was a requirement for Latin for Biology students. It was dropped, but I got around the whole 'Numerus Klausus' (minimum grade requirements)-issue anyway by moving country (first to Denmark, then Britain).

Permalink to Comment

28. eugene on October 19, 2006 5:59 PM writes...

Isn't there a Latin requirement for doctors? I know there used to be for sure, in many countries; I'm just not sure if it's the case today.

Permalink to Comment

29. Pharmachick on October 23, 2006 9:40 PM writes...

No Latin requirement for med school anywhere I've been (New Zealand, West Coast of US), but I teach med students and I'd give my left arm for some of them to at least have been *exposed* to latin. For those that have been it pulls them through surprisingly well.

Permalink to Comment

30. Richard Blaine on October 25, 2006 8:28 PM writes...

As a synthetic chem grad student back in the 80's and totally uneducated in German, I had to endure a semester of Scientific German, then the "translate a book chapter with a dictionary" exam. If I hadn't been intimately familiar with the particular chemistry discussed in that randomly selected chapter, I'd still be there taking the exam. (Dumb luck is the grad student's best friend.)

But worse - my boss was fluent in German, so he would hand me a German article and expect me to discuss it intelligently with him an hour later. (By then I might have gotten through the first page.)

Even worse - my boss used to get copies of Helmut Ringsdorf's (U. Mainz; see his Wikipedia entry - COOL!) internal group research reports and give them to me to practice translation. If you've ever had the glorious experience of sitting through a Ringsdorf lecture, you know where I'm going with this. In addition of the synthetic chemistry, the reports were full of FUNNY CARTOONS in German. Here was I, a stupid and naive first year, trying vainly to understand the chemistry through the language barrier, and at the same time I was supposed get Ringsdorf's jokes! I thought I would go insane. (Maybe I did...)

Permalink to Comment

31. eugene on November 4, 2006 4:55 PM writes...

Richard, why didn't you tell your advisor that there was no way you would learn German? Eventually, somebody must have told him exactly that. "Stop torturing your grad students, no need to know German anymore". I guess he could have been one of those really scary advisers though.

Permalink to Comment

32. richard blaine on December 30, 2006 11:42 AM writes...

eugene: Oh sure, every first year student should tell their new advisor that he/she is unwilling to try to learn something that the boss considers important. Sound like a good way NOT to become a second year student.

In the end, I did learn a little German, which was occasionally useful afterwards. But I only understood Ringsdorf's jokes much later when I heard him delivered them in person during a Gordon Conference talk.

Regarding advisors, this would make the subject for a hugely entertaining new thread, I think. My own experience is probably pretty common, with my opinion of my advisor passing though three distinct phases:
1. scary
2. infuriating
3. decent bloke

The transition between Phases 2 and 3 occurred minutes after my defense.

What was your experience?

Permalink to Comment

33. Vik on November 27, 2007 4:23 PM writes...

I was what they then called an "older returning student" when I entered college the first time. One of the first classes I took was "elementary" German. Believe me, there was nothing "elementary" about it. The TAs come in the room the first day jabbering in German, to students who are not supposed to be able to speak any German. I got through that semester somehow, but i never went back. No one, and I repeat NO ONE, with whom I have ever spoken who took four semesters of ANY foreign language in college can speak it now. They forgot everything they did manage to learn witnin about 6 months. A stupid requirement, altogether.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

How Not to Do It: NMR Magnets
Allergan Escapes Valeant
Vytorin Actually Works
Fatalities at DuPont
The New York TImes on Drug Discovery
How Are Things at Princeton?
Phage-Derived Catalysts
Our Most Snorted-At Papers This Month. . .