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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hitler's Electron Microscope

Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
                                                                          --Forrest Gump, 1994
Archival material is like a box of chocolates because when you open an archival box you never know exactly what will be inside. Recently it was Adolf Hitler's electron microscope. Well, not the microscope itself, but the paperwork about the 1944 confiscation by Allied Forces of a Siemens electron microscope from the laboratory of Hitler's personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morrell, and its transfer and reassembly at the Army Medical Museum at Walter Reed.

An academic researcher at the Technische Universität Wien (Austria), where they are celebrating the 75th anniversary of electron microscopy, wrote asking for a description of several folders from our Rubin Borasky Electron Microscopy Collection, including Series 5, Box 7, Folder 17: Siemens Electron Microscope (captured in WWII).
The transmittal document describes the Siemens electron microscope as purchased by Adolf Hitler for Dr. Morell. The back story here is that Hitler was a hypochondriac in thrall to Dr. Morell, who supplied him with vitamins, hormones, and steroids. The strength of his hold over Hitler is reflected in the fact that there were perhaps only two or three of these Siemens electron microscopes in existence being used for atomic research. According to a 2009 book by two German historians (The Hitler Book: The Secret Dossier Prepared for Stalin / 2009 Henrik Eberle, Matthias Uhl), Morell hoped to use it to develop an explosive powder. He set up a laboratory in Bad Reichenhall, just at the foot of Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, where Hitler had built his Eagle’s Nest bunker.

The Eagle's Nest, Bavaria
Picked up by Allied Forces, Dr. Morell was taken from prison in Bad Reichenhall, Bavaria; he took them to the laboratory location in a fortified house on the outskirts of the town, where the microscope was found. The Army packed it up but later found parts were missing. Because of the missing parts, a second Siemens electron microscope was located and the parts from the two combined the make a single model for display. The microscope thus created is now part of the Billings Microscope Collection at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The National Museum of Health and Medicine website has a complete inventory of the Billings Microscope collection and a Siemens electron microscope appears on p. 151 of the PDF.

Christine Windheuser, Volunteer
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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