Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy the Eider

the Fouder
1841
1880

Father: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Mother: Cecile Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Siblings: Fanny Hensel, Rebecka Lejeune Dirichlet, Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy


That Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy would be destined to found one of Germany’s largest chemical corporations is something few could have guessed. While still young, he loses both his parents. His love of music, especially of the works of Beethoven, remains a hobby rather than a viable career path. A talented draftsman, the boy could easily pursue painting as a vocation, but decides against it. He leaves secondary school at the age of 16 without earning the Abitur diploma and pursues vocational training in business administration. Though he completes this program, it, too, fails to fulfill him. He decides to catch up on his secondary school diploma so as to be able to enter the natural sciences curriculum at the Universities of Heidelberg and Göttingen. Here, he becomes especially interested in chemistry and physics and their various branches; Robert Wilhelm Bunsen is his favorite teacher. While at university, he joins the student fraternity Allemania, where he shines as a gymnast and fencer, but without letting this “distract him from the right path,” as one of his colleagues would later put it.

After a year of voluntary military service (1863/64), Mendelssohn Bartholdy joins the staff of a research laboratory, where he becomes acquainted with the newly emerging field of organic chemistry. Here he also gets to know the fellow chemist who later becomes his business partner, Carl Alexander Martius. He has been at his first job for just one and a half years when the Austro-Prussian War breaks out. The young chemist is drafted and sees action, including at the decisive battle of Königgrätz.

According to the mores of the times, successful self-made men are entitled to select a marriage partner of suitable social rank. Thus, Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy chooses Elisabeth (“Else”) Oppenheim, a granddaughter of his great uncle Alexander Mendelssohn – thereby making his son Otto a double descendant of Moses Mendelssohn. Sadly, Paul’s young spouse dies of typhus shortly after giving birth. To escape his grief, he redoubles his commitment to his work.

A spectrograph made to investigate the characteristics of crystal specimens, owned by Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy.  Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin PK, Music Department with Mendelssohn Archive, MA BA 355.
A spectrograph made to investigate the characteristics of crystal specimens, owned by Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin PK, Music Department with Mendelssohn Archive, MA BA 355.

After the war, Mendelssohn Bartholdy and his colleague Martius decide to exploit the opportunities arising from scientific advances in their field to establish their own company. Its purpose will be to manufacture the basic input materials for synthetic dyes, especially aniline oil and oil of mirbane. The former product also gives the company its name: Gesellschaft für Anilinfabrikation (Company for the Fabrication of Aniline). The partners purchase a large plot of land just outside of the Berlin city limits, in the municipality of Rummelsburg on the Spree River, where they proceed to set up workshops, laboratories, and warehouses along with a machine room and boiler room.

The chemical structure of aniline. Image: public domain.
The chemical structure of aniline. Image: public domain.
Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy in the uniform of the Landwehr cavalry during the Franco-Prussian War.  Image: private collection.
Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy in the uniform of the Landwehr cavalry during the Franco-Prussian War. Image: private collection.

1870/71, beim Deutsch-Französischen Krieg, wurde der Chemiker erneut zum Militär eingezogen, während sein Geschäftspartner Martius das Unternehmen weiterführte und ihm regelmäßig berichtete. Ein Jahr später, 1872, kauften die beiden Chemiker die nahegelegene Chemische Fabrik Dr. Jordan. Die Firmen verschmolzen 1873 zur Actien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrication, die fortan auch Anilinfarben produzierte, schnell zum größten Chemieunternehmen Norddeutschlands aufstieg und später unter dem Kürzel Agfa bekannt wurde.

The aniline factory compound in Rummelsburg near Berlin in 1877.  Image: private collection.
The aniline factory compound in Rummelsburg near Berlin in 1877. Image: private collection.
»“He was one of those fortunate individuals who did not have to win over people’s affection, but who instead have it offered to them half way. For as genteel as his outward demeanor may have been, his personality exuded a streak of benevolent goodwill which elicited unqualified trust.”«
Paul’s colleague August Wilhelm von Hofmann in an obituary

In 1873, Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy ties the knot a second time, this time with Enole Oppenheim, the younger sister of his first wife. But this family idyll, too, is to be short-lived. After evincing symptoms of cardiac trouble, Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy succumbs to a heart attack at the age of 39. He was only a few months older than his father.

1865
1935
Franz von Mendelssohn the Younger
The Chairman
1874
1964
Marie Baum
A Woman of the Modern Age
1874
1936
Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy
The Enlightener