In 1992, a Dutch physician named Josh von Soer Clemm von Hohenberg wrote a letter to Henning Voscherau, the mayor of Hamburg, Germany, requesting to name a street after Marie Nyswander. The doctor had never met Marie, but had founded a clinic treating people with drug addiction, and had seen methadone treatment, co-developed by Marie, save lives. Four years later, doctors gathered in a street in northwest Hamburg to celebrate a new street: Nyswanderweg. We’re investigating how streets get their names, in Germany and elsewhere, and why so few of them honor women like Marie, who have made historic achievements.
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KATIE HAFNER: This is the bonus episode of our season about Marie Nyswander. If you haven’t heard the other episodes, you might want to go back to the first one and start there.
RITA BAKE [translated from German]: You write your name and your address all the time. That’s why it penetrates so deeply into one’s consciousness. I go to my address all the time. I write my address. I tell people my address.
KATIE HAFNER: In the course of our research into Marie Nyswander, we came upon an intriguing exchange of letters between a Dutch psychologist and the mayor of a German city.
On April 29, 1992, almost exactly six years after Marie died, a Dr. Josh von Soer Clemm von Hohenberg wrote to the mayor of Hamburg with a special request: to name a street after Marie.
Josh was the founder of a drug addiction treatment center called Palette. And as it turns out, he never actually met Marie. But he had devoted much of his career to treating people in Hamburg with drug addiction. In that 1992 letter to Hamburg Mayor Henning Voscherau, here’s what Josh wrote, translated from German:
JOSH VON SOER CLEMM VON HOHENBERG [translated from German]: Dr. Marie Nyswander together with Dr. Vincent Dole developed this life-saving drug for many people addicted to Heroin in 1964. In Hamburg, too, hundreds of people with drug use disorder are now being successfully treated with this drug.
He then asked that the city bestow the name Nyswander upon a street in an area of Hamburg where Palette was located. Mayor Voscherau gently rejected the application. Here was his response:
HENNING VOSCHERAU (as read by Jacob Pinter): The laws of Hamburg simply do not permit a re-naming of existing streets. On the other hand, consideration can be given to your suggestion as new streets are created in connection with expansion of this city.
We don’t know what happened exactly after this brush-off, but it’s clear that Josh didn’t give up because Nyswanderweg—Marie Nyswander Way—exists in Hamburg today.
This is Lost Women of Science. I’m Katie Hafner. Today is a bonus episode for our fifth season, The Doctor and the Fix, all about Marie Nyswander, who pioneered the use of methadone as a treatment for heroin addiction.
This episode is all about street names. Streets names in general and Nyswanderweg in particular. And how does all that work, anyway? Who gets to have a street named after them? And what does it mean to live on a street named after a person. And why does it matter that Nyswanderweg exists at all—that is, to the people who knew her and the people who live there today.
[CLIP: Sounds from Nyswanderweg]
KATIE HAFNER: Nyswanderweg is nestled in Eidelstedt, a sleepy residential neighborhood in northwest Hamburg. And it’s a tiny finger of a road, so small it doesn’t even show up in Google Maps Street View. But we wanted to see it, at least by proxy, so we found Julian Bohne, a reporter based in Hamburg, and we sent him there to be our eyes and ears.
He told us that Nyswanderweg is a very quiet L-shaped cul de sac—so quiet you might think you’re out in suburbia and not in one of Europe’s largest, busiest cities. You can drive on it for about 100 yards, and then it turns sharply to the right and becomes something more like a grassy pathway—basically what Germans call a Spielstrasse, so cars can’t go there and kids can play.
For the two hours Julian was there, he saw a total of three people out on the street and no cars at all. So he started knocking on doors to ask folks what they know about the person behind their street name. And what he found was classically north German—meaning, not many people wanted to chat. He rang the doorbells of most of the houses on the street and didn’t have a lot of success. One elderly man answered the door, looking scared, and closed it again. Then…bingo.
[CLIP: Julian Bohne greeting a resident in German]
KATIE HAFNER: The woman who answered the door was named Marina. Julian asked what Marina knew about the person her street is named after.
MARINA [translated from German]: Yes, it’s named after Frau Nyswander, who was a co-developer of Methadone Therapy. That’s what it says on the street sign.
JULIAN BOHNE [translated from German]: You’re well informed. Do you know anything more about her?
MARINA: No. I know Absolutely nothing about her beyond what’s on the street sign.
KATIE HAFNER: Julian also spoke with another resident: a woman named Paula Kovacs, who also didn’t know much about Marie, but she really warmed up to the subject.
PAULA KOVACS [translated from German]: I read briefly on the street sign. I read that she was a doctor, though I’m not sure anymore exactly what her specialty was. But I found it quite exciting.
JULIAN BOHNE: Yes, she was a psychiatrist and in the sixties she recognized, or developed, Methadone as a treatment for people addicted to heroin.
PAULA KOVACS: Oh, that’s wonderful.
KATIE HAFNER: The more Paula heard about Marie, the more excited she got. She thinks it’s a great coincidence that she lives on this street because she’s a scientist too. She’s a chemist.
PAULA KOVACS: I fight for more recognition for women in science. And I’m delighted that women are being recognized more.
JULIAN BOHNE: That is exactly the theme of the podcast: Lost Women of Science.
KATIE HAFNER: As far as we can tell, this is the only street, lane, avenue, what have you in the world named after Marie Nyswander. And we thought it was so odd that it’s in a city that Marie very likely never actually visited.
And it bears mentioning that of all the places in the world, the one country with a street named after Marie Nyswander should be Germany. Because methadone treatment was controversial in Germany for a long time, and methadone wasn’t used as a therapy there until 1987. This all made us wonder who gets to have a street named after them, what do street names signify in general.
Someone who shed great light on this for us was Karsten Polke-Majewski, who heads the department of investigative research and data at Die ZEIT, one of Germany’s leading publications. In 2018, Karsten and his colleagues worked on this incredibly vast project cataloging all the street names in Germany and analyzing their findings in dozens of different ways.
I couldn’t resist pointing out to him that it struck me as a uniquely German thing to do.
KARSTEN POLKE-MAJEWSKI (translated from German): Yes, it’s very German. We like to count and organize everything. The original idea was to count and examine street names because of what they tell us about German history, about geography, about identity, about self-image. And to ask: what does that tell us about Germany itself?
KATIE HAFNER: The database contains about 450,000 different street names throughout the country, and anyone can type their street name in and see how many times that street appears in Germany. One road might have thousands that bear the same name, like hauptstraße, which translates to Main Street. Or Rudolf-Breitscheid-Straße—he was an anti-fascist whom the Nazis arrested and he later died in a concentration camp. His name appears in more than 400 streets and squares, especially in eastern Germany.
German street names mostly end with suffixes like Straße, weg, allee, gasse, which are variations on street, way, lane, boulevard, or alley.
Karsten pointed out that many German street names have been around for centuries. The oldest names have historically served very practical purposes—like the road along the river might be called Uferstrasse, or Shore Road, the street that goes into and out of the village would be called Dorfstrasse, a road in an area where blacksmiths worked might be called Schmidtstraße.
The database showed that about one out of five streets in Germany today are named after a person or historical event.
KARSTEN POLKE-MAJEWSKI: At some point, people realized that street names are not just a designation for a place, but that you can turn a street name into a kind of monument.
KATIE HAFNER: Karsten says that naming streets after people started around the French Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars in the late 1700s. Revolutionary armies at the time were moving through Europe, changing street names as they went. As the winds of politics shifted, so did the naming of streets. People began to name streets after emperors, such as Kaiser Wilhelm Straße, which appears in Berlin, Hamburg, Essen and more than a dozen other German cities.
Then in the 20th century, with the rise of Nazi Germany, scores of streets were named after Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, et cetera. And it goes without saying that after the Allied victory in 1945 many of those names got changed, usually back to what they were to begin with.
But also, over time, the names of streets expanded to include all kinds of people—beyond leaders and politicians—who’ve made a major impact on society. For example, Karsten says streets got named after poets and composers—Goethe, Schiller, Mozart, Beethoven. And he said that has a bit of a halo effect on the people who live there.
KARSTEN POLKE-MAJEWSKI: So if I live on a street named after an important person, then it reflects something about me.
KATIE HAFNER: What Karsten said reminded me of the street I used to live on in San Francisco. Cesar Chavez Street And I did feel like the name reflected something politically righteous that I could take pride in. Whenever I had to give my address to a stranger, I’d say, “Cesar Chavez.” If that didn’t register, I’d say, “You know—after the famous farm labor organizer.” And if that didn’t register, I’d spell it, then give an unsolicited—but brief—history lesson.
Anyhow, I asked Karsten: what does “important” mean here? Who is deemed a person important enough to have a road named after them?
KARSTEN POLKE-MAJEWSKI: This is a very good question, the question of who it is that people find important at a certain time in history, and in most cases, it is those who govern or those in other forms of power, and that has a lot to do with the prevailing zeitgeist or the prevailing ideology at the time.
KATIE HAFNER: And what about Hamburg itself? What streets in Hamburg are named after women, especially women who were important to history, like Marie?
In Hamburg, there are about 2,500 streets named after men. And according to Hamburg-based historian Rita Bake, 460 are named after women, which, we should add, is a huge improvement over the past.
But Rita definitely thinks more women could—and should—be represented. She says that even though men and women were granted equal rights in the 1949 German Constitution, women are still—to this day—not valued and recognized on the same level.
RITA BAKE [translated from German]: Many do not even realize that their patriarchal thinking and patriarchal actions are not based on the Basic Law. Of course, I take pleasure in pointing this out to people.
KATIE HAFNER: Rita, who’s retired now, spent part of her career as deputy director of Hamburg’s State Center of Civic Education. Throughout her career she has worked to educate the public on women’s history and to bring recognition to women who’ve made a lasting impact on society.
She grew curious about street names, especially streets named after women in the 1980s, while she was getting her doctorate. At the time, she was studying female factory workers.
RITA BAKE: So I drove to where they worked, on which streets they were called and then on the daily routes from the subway to the state archive. There were these street names and suddenly these streets had a completely different meaning because I knew that women worked there back then.
This gave me a different perspective on Hamburg, and then I looked at the monuments in Hamburg and noticed how few monuments to women there were and I thought, I wonder how many streets are named after women.
KATIE HAFNER: Rita did her own cataloging of women’s street names and found that streets that were named after women were named after female saints.
RITA BAKE: Of course, there’s St. Catherine. There are streets that are actually very old and named after women, but they’re sacred. In the 19th century, landowners built a lot of streets and named them after their daughters or wives, which was a popular wedding present back then.
KATIE HAFNER: These days, it’s tough to rename a German street, as we saw in the letters we talked about at the beginning of this episode—especially streets in the center of Hamburg. That’s where the oldest streets are and it’s where that drug addiction treatment center Palette is located.
The streets that do end up getting named after women are more likely to be small streets within newer developments in the outskirts of the city, like Nyswanderweg.
Rita explained what it takes to get a new street named. It involves a rather long process of petitioning your local district, the district assembly taking its time to consider the proposal, then maybe approve it, and then if it does get approved, it becomes a recommendation that the State archives sends to the Senate Commission. And then they have to decide. All of this can pretty much take months, if not years.
But Nyswanderweg somehow made it through this bureaucracy. Karsten says that in recent years there’s been more of an effort to name streets after women.
KARSTEN POLKE-MAJEWSKI: There is a clear rule in Hamburg and the rule is we want more women on street signs and therefore if we name this street after a man or woman then the decision is always more in the direction of a woman
KATIE HAFNER: And even though Marie didn’t have much of a connection to Hamburg, if any at all, her work has had an impact on people living there. I asked Rita if she thinks people should learn about Marie and what she did in her lifetime.
RITA BAKE: Yes, especially because this methadone program helped people with drug use disorder. If you go to the main Hamburg train station, then you’ll see a lot of those people scratching out their existence.
There is so much prejudice against them. So it’s especially important to know that Marie Nyswander pioneered this methadone program and broke down barriers for people with drug use disorder. I think it is important that we learn more about her.
KATIE HAFNER: And one way to encourage people to learn about her—and other important women in history—is by dedicating a street to them.
RITA BAKE: Because street names are part of the private address, you write your name and your address all the time. That’s why it penetrates so deeply into one’s consciousness. I go to my address all the time. I write my address. I tell people my address.
KATIE HAFNER: And just for the record, if I lived on Nyswander Street, I’d be telling every stranger on the phone who asked for my street address about Marie Nyswander and her incredible work until they hung up on me.
Nyswanderweg was officially inaugurated on June 15, 1996. Robert Newman, a physician who at the time was president of the Beth Israel Medical Center and a great admirer of Marie’s work, wrote an article in a German medical journal on addiction treatment, where he described the inauguration as a lively celebration with speeches, a procession and even a brass band. Doctors, patients and staff from Palette, the addiction treatment center, were in attendance.
Marie’s mother, Dorothy Nyswander, being 102 at the time, wasn’t able to attend the event in person. But Dorothy, who had instilled in her daughter the importance of public service, told Robert Newman that the naming of the street in Hamburg “in honor of her only child was the most beautiful experience of her long life.”
Josh von Soer Clemm von Hohenberg, that Dutch psychologist who kicked off the whole effort to make Marie Nyswander Way happen, took his appreciation of Marie all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Not long after the street got named, while he was in the U.S. for a conference in Arizona, Josh went out of his way to fly to Berkeley, California, to visit Dorothy, who was now bedridden.
He carried a gift with him and not your run-of-the-mill gift, not a little trifle you tuck into your carry-on. It was a full-sized replica of the large metal street sign in recognition of Marie Nyswander.
The sign hung over Dorothy’s bed until she died in 1998.
This episode of Lost Women of Science was produced by Eli Chen. Hansdale Hsu was the sound engineer. Danya Abdelhameid was our fact checker. Thanks, as always, to my co-executive producer, Amy Scharf and to Jeff DelViscio at Scientific American.
Lost Women of Science is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American. We get our funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and our listeners. That’s you. You can donate to the lost women of science cause at lostwomenofscience.org.
We’d also love your suggestions for female scientists whom you believe have been omitted from the historical record. You’ll see how to contact us on our website, where you will also find the number to call our tip line. We love getting calls on the tip line. I’m your host, Katie Hafner.