Remembering Hans Wynberg

November 05, 2010

Marjorie Wall Bingham ’58

Author Marjorie Bingham ’58

On May 25, 2011, Hans Wynberg, assistant professor of chemistry at Grinnell from 1954–56, died in his sleep at his home in Midlaren, the Netherlands. He was 88.

Wynberg had spent the day being interviewed by a Canadian documentary film crew about his OSS (Office of Strategic Services) experiences in World War II. He and his team of U.S. secret agents had parachuted into Austria to set up Operation Greenup to monitor German military movements. Their exploits are detailed in Gerald Schwab’s OSS Agents in Hitler’s Heartland and Patrick K. O’Donnell’s They Dared to Return. For his actions, Wynberg was knighted by the Queen of the Netherlands and three other nations ― the United States, France, and Austria — awarded him medals. The Austrians recognized his part in negotiating the designation of Innsbruck as an open city, thus sparing the region from further fighting.

Born in Amsterdam on Nov. 28, 1922, Wynberg and his twin brother were sent to the United States by his Jewish parents to escape the Nazi takeover of Holland. The rest of their family — mother, father, and younger brother — were planning to follow, but were caught in the Holocaust and perished.

After the war, Wynberg built a distinguished career; he received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, taught at the University of Minnesota and Tulane University, and eventually returned to the Netherlands, to chair the chemistry department at the University of Groningen. He authored hundreds of papers and supervised a group of Ph.D. students who became leaders in their fields. One of these brilliant scientists, Ben Feringe ,wrote of him, “All over the world Hans Wijnberg [Wynberg] is regarded as one of the founders of asymmetric organocatalysis, a field in which he was far ahead of his time.” Wynberg also started Syncom, a company specializing in organic synthesis.

And, from 1954–56, he was assistant professor of chemistry at Grinnell. In the Grinnell Cyclone yearbook of 1956, his picture is easily spotted. While the rest of the professors appear largely solemn, hands at their sides, Wynberg stands tall, relaxed, arms crossed, with a large smile. That’s the way I remember him: an enthusiastic, engaging teacher.

Our first day of class began, however, with very stern instructions. We were never to start the exhaust fans, which removed odors and dangerous gases, without notifying him first. Otherwise, the clinkety-clank of the fans starting sounded like machine-gun fire to him and he’d “hit the deck.” I don’t remember any of my classmates forgetting those instructions, but rumor had it that the warned event had happened in another class.

Professor Wynberg, in addition to being a fine teacher, was a real missionary for science, checking and encouraging during lab work. When he heard that I — one of his “A” chemistry students — was considering a history major, he let me know what a “waste” that would be. How could anyone choose such a soft, fickle field when hard subjects, like chemistry, investigated the very heart of the universe?

But I had been reading Science is a Sacred Cow, a forerunner of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Thought, and thus began a series of after-class and in-class discussions of the cultural assumptions of science. I might have taken more chemistry — Wynberg was a very persuasive man — but he left Grinnell for the greater research possibilities of Tulane University. We never saw each other again.

About 40 years later, his email address appeared in a class newsletter. I wrote to thank him for trying to mentor a young woman into science in the 1950s when few did so. A quick reply came from him, full of questions, and thus began an almost decade-long, daily correspondence. Friends asked what we could possibly write about each day. It was not chemistry! I had become a history teacher and writer.

Ironically enough, a good deal of the e mails had to do with history. He had taken it up, after retirement, especially early American history. Though not my favorite era, we shared a mutual respect for the Federalist Papers, especially Madison’s #10. This shared belief, in the protection of minority rights within a federalist system, underlay many of our political discussions of current events. Another favorite, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, came out in a new edition and was the topic of his last emails to me.

As a historian, I encouraged him to write about his own life. Much was, he answered, either covered in books or was too painful to consider. When I received an email about broken sleep, “Brr, that dream again” (about trying to rescue someone), I knew to answer with news of a grandchild’s antics or a deer sighting by our lake. Working on a journal article, “Women in the Warsaw Ghetto,” I censored my daily readings and he probably thought I’d turned into a social butterfly. As he aged, however, he wrote more about the war and the OSS search for Nazis afterward and his own personal search for the fate of his family. But he often included stories that showed his mischievous, ironic sense of humor

On his troop ship home, his companions were a group of snobbish officers, generals, colonels, and majors who looked down on his first lieutenant bars. Ignored or ordered about — his own exploits under OSS secrecy — Wynberg’s trip was not pleasant. When the ship finally docked in the United States, a two-ton truck was waiting to take the officers to base. The OSS, meanwhile, had sent a new white Cadillac with a good-looking female driver for Wynberg. He loved the envious looks on his fellow travelers’ faces.

Many of our emails chronicled less historic topics. Both of us had many community interests and large extended families close by. There were parties, lectures, crises, and ball games to describe. Each day, when possible, Wynberg visited his wife, Elly Dekker Wynberg, in her assisted living facility, often stopping for meetings and friends along the way. Family members and friends became, on other side of the Atlantic, rather like Jane Austen characters. We did not necessarily have similar interests. He despaired of my lack of interest in cooking; he collected hundreds of cookbooks. He would report on an apple pie he had baked; I ‘d make a rhubarb cream one only when convinced it was the last way to taste another. He was fascinated by the origins of language, seeing it as a separation of humans from animals. Spending my early years on the farm, I had more of a sense that animals and humans differed in degree, not kind. Wynberg loved Lewis Carroll and rhymed verse, the funnier the better. He self-published two of his own such poetry books. I couldn’t interest him much in my favorite poet, the history-tossed Russian Anna Akhmatova.

Grinnell figured in our correspondence occasionally as I wrote about College reunions, College friends, or my brother Richard Wall ’69’s criticism of cutting graduation course requirements. For Wynberg, the Grinnell model of a small, residential college emphasizing liberal arts was one sorely lacking in the Netherlands and, without much luck, he tried to change that. Two of his sons, Anthony and David, did go to Grinnell for a while and his daughter-in-law, Barbara Williams Wynberg ’77, graduated from Grinnell.

Our long correspondence, in many ways, was a continuance of those after-class discussion begun in the Grinnell chemistry lab — from a few hours then to thousands of emails later. Even now I will order that de Tocqueville edition he said I must see. …

This was originally published as an article in The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2011.

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