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Designing (for) a new scientific discipline: the location and architecture of the Institut für Radiumforschung in early twentieth-century Vienna

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 August 2005

Efestion 11, Thisio, Athens 11851, Greece. E-mail:


This essay explores how Viennese physicists who specialized in radioactivity research embodied visions of their new discipline in material terms, through the architectural design and the urban location of their institute. These visions concerned not only the experimental culture of radioactivity, or the interdisciplinarity of the field, but also the gendered experiences of those working in the institute's laboratories, many of who were women. In designing the Institute for Radium Research at the end of the 1910s – the first such specialized institute in Europe – physicists and architects were also designing the new discipline in a strong sense. In the architectural form of the building one can trace the aesthetics of the new discipline, the scientific exchanges of its personnel and the image of a newly formed community in which women were more than welcomed.

Research Article
© 2005 British Society for the History of Science

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I would like to thank the participants of several workshops, where versions of this essay have been presented, for their helpful comments: the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Colloquium of Hans-Jörg Rheinberger's Department; ‘Spaces of Exploration’, the Third Conference on Laboratory History; the Seminar Series of STS in Virginia Tech; and the Joint Atlantic Seminar on the History of Physical Sciences (JASHOPS). I am indebted for valuable discussions to Richard Burian, Aristides Baltas, Gary Downey, Peter Galison, Bernice Hausman, Christoph Hofmann, Bill Leslie, Brad Kelley, Joseph Pitt, Leo Slater and Artur Svansson. I owe warm acknowledgements to the architect Spiros Flevaris for guiding me through the world of architectural design and to Ty Brady for designing the map of the Mediziner-Viertel. Simon Schaffer and an anonymous referee deserve special thanks for their helpful suggestions about how to bring the article to its final version. The archivists Stefan Sienell (Austrian Academy of Sciences), Brigitte Kromp (Central Library of Physics in Vienna) and Anders Larsson (University of Göteborg) suggested relevant sources and facilitated my research. My sincere thanks go also to Agnes Rodhe for allowing me to interview her and for giving permission to use her family pictures in my research. All translations, unless otherwise stated, are my own.