The Center for Hellenic Studies

Ada Sara Adler: The Greatest Woman Philologist Who Ever Lived

Catharine P. Roth
QP Roth-fig1
Ada Adler, whom William Calder calls “incontestably the greatest woman philologist who ever lived,” [1] enjoyed the support of a mentor, Anders Bjørn Drachmann, who believed in what she could accomplish even though she did not have a regular university appointment. Gregory Nagy has been that kind of a mentor to many students, and so it seems appropriate to offer this biographical sketch to a collection in his honor. [2]
Ada Sara Adler was born in 1878 into a remarkably progressive Danish Jewish family. Her father Bertel David Adler was a banker and politician. [3] One of her aunts, Hanna Adler, after being one of the first two Danish women to earn an advanced degree in physics, became a prominent educator. She visited the United States to observe educational methods, and returned to Denmark to promote coeducational schools. At the age of 84, she was arrested by the Nazis but released after an outcry from the Danish public. [4] Ada’s other aunt, Ellen Adler Bohr, became the mother of Niels Bohr, the famous physicist, and his brother Harald, the mathematician and Olympic soccer player. Reportedly Aunt Hanna used to take Niels and Harald on excursions when they were at their grandmother’s house for summer vacations; [5] it seems likely that Ada was involved as well.
Ada reports that as a child she was fond of reading, and benefited from her parents’ large library. [6] She attended the kind of secondary school which was available to upper-class Danish girls; at N. Zahle’s School she studied Greek (beginning in 1893) with A.B. Drachmann who was also her teacher later at the University of Copenhagen. [7] When she graduated from secondary school, someone asked her ten-year-old cousin Harald Bohr what he would like to be when he grew up, and he replied that he would like to graduate from high school if boys as well as girls could do that. [8]
At the University of Copenhagen, Ada continued her studies with Drachmann and was also influenced by Professor Vilhelm Thomsen who was lecturing on comparative and historical linguistics. [9] Incidentally, he was a friend of Ada’s uncle Christian Bohr. [10] Ada came to concentrate on the study of Greek and comparative religion, and wrote her master’s thesis on ancient Greek religion (1906). In the same year she received an award from the Historical Philological Society for her research on the myth of Pandora. After that, she went to study in Vienna, published a few short articles, and was hired to do research and writing for Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, in 1912. [11] For Pauly-Wissowa, Ada wrote articles on Greek religion, and eventually (in 1932) the article on the Suda. [12] While investigating the sources of the Suda, she discovered in the Royal Danish Library the uncatalogued collection of manuscripts made by D.G. Moldenhawer (documents which he evidently removed from various libraries without authorization); this became the topic of Ada’s doctoral thesis. [13] It is probably not coincidental that she spent the years of World War I working on a thesis based on resources available at home in neutral Denmark.
In 1901 Ada had married Anton Ludvig Christian Thomsen, who became a professor of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen and wrote a book on David Hume. According to Adda Hilden, “In the early years, the marriage was probably very valuable to both when it came to research …” [14] However, the couple were divorced in 1912, and Professor Thomsen married Olga Eggers, a feminist writer (later Nazi sympathizer). [15] He “died, apparently suffering from a debilitating neurological condition, just a few years later [in 1915].” [16]
It was also in 1912 that Drachmann suggested to Ada that she should edit the Suda. [17] She herself mentions the challenge of undertaking such a large project as a novice editor (in Suida tirocinium editoris facere illud est quod Plato ἐν πίθῳ τἠν κεραμείαν μανθάνειν appellat). [18] Much collating of manuscripts needed to be done, both by herself and with the aid of helpers, who are thanked in the preface to volume 1. The best-known of her helpers was Kaj Barr. She mentions that he was going to edit the unpublished Ambrosian Lexicon. This did not happen; he went on to become a scholar in Iranian language and religion, but also was called into service to complete volume 2 of Kurt Latte’s edition of Hesychius, when Latte died in 1964. [19] The dates of collation which Adler mentions in the Prolegomena make it clear that World War I delayed this work. Ada reports working in Rome and Florence in 1913 and up to the spring of 1914. After the war (and after receiving her doctorate), in 1919 – 1920 she was in Paris, Venice, Oxford, and Florence. In 1921 she was in Rome and Brussels. Three years later she visited Oxford again. Some libraries were also willing to send their manuscripts to Copenhagen for her study; in some cases Ada collated from photographs. [20]
Financial support for Ada’s travels, photographs, assistants, and printing came from the Carlsberg Foundation; the Hielmstierne Rosencronske Foundation also helped with travel costs. [21] In all this time, Ada did not have a regular university appointment, but lectured as a Privatdocent.
Volume 1 was published in 1928, sixteen years after Ada started the project. Additional volumes appeared at approximately two-year intervals (volume 2 in 1931, volume 3 in 1933, volume 4 in 1935), with the fifth volume (indices, addenda, corrigenda) completing the set in 1938. Apparently the influx of Danish currency made it possible for Teubner to continue publishing the work in spite of the Adler family’s Jewish heritage (Kurt Latte questioned whether overcoming Teubner’s racial prejudice was an appropriate use of kroner). [22] Ada made earnest efforts to help German Jewish scholars, especially Latte, but was unsuccessful in arranging his escape from Germany. [23]
On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Denmark, and the Danish government soon surrendered. From that time until 1943, there was uneasy cooperation between the Danish government and the Nazis. King Christian X remained as the head of state. The Danish cabinet rejected demands for legislation discriminating against Jews. Dr. Werner Best avoided pressing the issue, fearing that it would stir up Danish public opinion against the German authorities. Nevertheless, acts of resistance, whether symbolic or violent, gradually increased. The Danes continued to resist German demands, and on August 29, 1943, the Germans dissolved the Danish government and instituted martial law. In October the Germans decided to deport all Danish Jews; but, the information being leaked, the Danes managed to evacuate most of their Jews to Sweden. Ada’s cousin, Niels Bohr, was warned to escape promptly (since the Germans wanted his expertise) and was instrumental in making arrangements with the Swedish government to allow the evacuation of the other Jews. [24] Ada herself was among those evacuated; [25] while in Lund, Sweden, she taught Greek in a school which had been formed for Danish evacuee young people. [26]
After the war, Ada returned to Copenhagen. A letter in the Niels Bohr Archive, dated August 18, 1946, shows Ada asking Niels to help arrange permission for Kurt Latte to leave Germany and enter Denmark. She also mentions a pleasant visit with Aunt Hanne [Adler], and speaks of dizziness and a report not yet received from a doctor. [27] This seems ominous, as only four months later Ada passed away after “lying hopelessly ill for a long time.” [28] She is buried at the Jewish cemetery in Copenhagen called “Vestre Begravelsesplads.” [29]
In her obituary, Mogens Broendsted reports that Ada was known for her kindness and hospitality to colleagues and especially to younger scholars. Alluding to Moldenhawer’s careless ideas of ”mine and yours” (what’s yours is mine), he suggests that Ada had a more generous idea of ”mine and yours”: what’s mine is yours. [30]

Footnotes

[ back ] 1. William M Calder III and Judith P. Hallett, “Introduction: Six North American Women Classicists.” Classical World 90 (1996-7): 83
[ back ] 2. I want to thank the University of Cincinnati Classics Department for the privilege of a Tytus Fellowship in the spring of 2008, which gave me time and resources to begin investigating the history of scholarship on the Suda.
[ back ] 3. Adda Hilden, “Ada Adler (1878 - 1946).” Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon (2003). August 30, 2011 <http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/597/bio/269/>.
[ back ] 4. Birgitte Possing, “H. Adler (1859-1947).” Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon (2003). September 13, 2011 <http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/597/bio/271/>. Janne Laursen. “Sv: Ada Sara Adler.” E-mail to Catharine P. Roth, 17 June 2009.
[ back ] 5. David Jens Adler, “Childhood and Youth.” Niels Bohr; His Life and Work as Seen by His Friends and Colleagues. Ed. S. Rozental. New York: Wiley, 1967. 20.
[ back ] 6. Ada Sara Adler. “Selvbiographie.” Festskrift udgivet af Københavns Universitet i anledning af universitetets aarsfest november 1918 (1918): 165.
[ back ] 7. Per Krarup and Hans Ræder, “Adler, Ada Sara.” Dansk Biografisk Leksikon. Ed. Svend. Cedergreen Bech. 3 ed. Vol. 1. 16 vols. Gylendal: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1979. 55; Ada Adler, Suidae Lexicon. Pars IV Π - Ψ. (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1935) v.
[ back ] 8. Adda Hilden, “Ada Adler (1878 - 1946).” Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon (2003). August 30, 2011 <http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/597/bio/269/>.
[ back ] 9. Adda Hilden, “Ada Adler (1878 - 1946).” Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon (2003). August 30, 2011 <http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/597/bio/269/>.
[ back ] 10. David Jens Adler, “Childhood and Youth.” Niels Bohr; His Life and Work as Seen by His Friends and Colleagues. Ed. S. Rozental. New York: Wiley, 1967. 13
[ back ] 11. Adler, Ada Sara. Selvbiographie. Festskrift udgivet af Københavns Universitet i anledning af universitetets aarsfest november 1918 (1918): 165-66.
[ back ] 12. Adda Hilden, “Ada Adler (1878 - 1946).” Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon (2003). August 30, 2011 <http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/597/bio/269/origin/170/>.
[ back ] 13. Adda Hilden, “Ada Adler (1878 - 1946).” Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon (2003). August 30, 2011 <http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/597/bio/269/>.
[ back ] 14. Adda Hilden, “Ada Adler (1878 - 1946).” Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon (2003). August 30, 2011 <http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/597/bio/269/>.
[ back ] 15. Iben Vyff and Charlotte Rohlin Olsen. “Olga Eggers (1875 - 1945).” Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon (2003 ). Accessed August 30, 2011.
[ back ] 16. Adda Hilden, “Ada Adler (1878 - 1946).” Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon (2003). Accessed August 30, 2011 <http://www.kvinfo.dk/side/597/bio/269/>.
[ back ] 17. Ada Adler, ed. Suidae Lexicon. Pars I A –Γ. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1928. v
[ back ] 18. Ada Adler, ed. Suidae Lexicon. Pars I A –Γ. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1928. vii
[ back ] 19. Klaus Alpers, “Zur Geschichte Der Neuen Hesychausgabe. Ein Bericht Aus Anlaß Der Erscheinens Von Band III Der Ausgabe Von K. Latte Und P.A. Hansen.” Abhandlungen der Braunschweigischen Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft 57 (2007): 131-2 with note 73
[ back ] 20. Ada Adler, ed. Suidae Lexicon. Pars I A –Γ. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1928. viii-xi
[ back ] 21. Ada Adler, ed. Suidae Lexicon. Pars I A –Γ. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1928. vi
[ back ] 22. Klaus Alpers, “Zur Geschichte Der Neuen Hesychausgabe. Ein Bericht Aus Anlaß Der Erscheinens Von Band III Der Ausgabe Von K. Latte Und P.A. Hansen.” Abhandlungen der Braunschweigischen Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft 57 (2007): 128 n. 58
[ back ] 23. Klaus Alpers, “Zur Geschichte Der Neuen Hesychausgabe. Ein Bericht Aus Anlaß Der Erscheinens Von Band Iii Der Ausgabe Von K. Latte Und P.A. Hansen.” Abhandlungen der Braunschweigischen Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft 57 (2007): 128.
[ back ] 24. Niels Bohr, Léon Rosenfeld, Finn Aaserud. Niels Bohr: collected works. The political arena (1934-1961), Elsevier, 2005. Page 14.
[ back ] 25. Clemens Zintzen was told, perhaps (he says) by Heinrich Dörrie, that Ada had died in a concentration camp: hence his remarks in the preface to his edition of Damascius, Life of Isidore, comparing her to Hypatia. Happily this was not the case. Clemens Zintzen, ed. Damascius, Vitae Isidori reliquiae. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1967; Clemens Zintzen, “Ada Adler.” E-mails to Catharine Roth, June 6 and 7, 2008.
[ back ] 26. Bjarke Følner, The Danish Jewish Museum, e-mail to Catharine Roth, August 12, 2008. See also in German Wikipedia http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Adler (accessed 17 September 2011).
[ back ] 27. Ada Adler, letter to Niels Bohr, August 18, 1946, Niels Bohr Archive. A collection of Adler’s correspondence is preserved in the Royal Library in Copenhagen.
[ back ] 28. Mogens Broendsted. “Ada Adler Død.” obituary. Politiken 29 December 1946.
[ back ] 29. Janne Laursen. “Sv: Ada Sara Adler.” E-mail to Catharine P. Roth, 17 June 2009.
[ back ] 30. Mogens Broendsted. “Ada Adler Død.” obituary. Politiken 29 December 1946.