Famous Basel personalities
Basel, a world-class city. In education and science, business and culture, this cosmopolitan Swiss city plays in the Premier League. Throughout the course of history, it has repeatedly produced intellectual giants and people with extraordinary talents. Innumerable people from outside Switzerland have felt themselves attracted by its location where Switzerland, Germany and France meet as well as by its cosmopolitan spirit, thus contributing to its atmosphere of innovation and creativity.
A Place for Originals
It is the people who live in Basel who make the city different. The city was – and is repeatedly – shaped by famous personalities. Basel is known throughout the world as the home of tennis star Roger Federer. Friedrich Nietzsche taught at the University of Basel and Hermann Hesse wrote “Steppenwolf” here. It is quite evident that the city offers the inspiring environment needed for reflection, research, development and creativity.
In Basel, brilliant minds find everything they need for research: an outstanding university, the necessary infrastructure and proximity to business. Therefore, ground-breaking research findings can be quickly utilised by industry.
Artists, too, find fertile ground in Basel: sought-after training facilities, numerous exhibition and concert halls as well as institutions that support the arts. One very special element is Basel’s long tradition of patronage, which never ceases to make extraordinary projects possible.
The Passionate Collector
*1495, †1562: Bonifacius Amerbach was Dean of the University, lawyer and composer. He also started a collection of prints that would later make his family famous: His son Basilius founded the «Amerbach-Kabinett», an art collection that in the 17th century became the first public museum in Europe. The works are now displayed in the Kunstmuseum and in other museums in Basel. Bonifacius Amerbach had several notable friends, among them Hans Holbein the Younger ((Anker auf Holbein der Jüngere)) and Erasmus of Rotterdam ((Anker auf Erasmus von Rotterdam)). The latter made Bonifacius Amerbach his principal heir, which is why a large part of Erasmus’ estate remained in Basel and is still accessible today.
Biologist with Brains
*1968: How do muscles, nerves, and the brain work together? The neurobiologist Silvia Arber searches for answers to this question. She has been able to show how the network of nerve cells in cerebrum, brain stem and spinal cord coordinates movements. Silvia Arber is among the most successful biologists in Switzerland and has received a number of renowned awards for her outstanding work, including the city of Basel’s science award and the important Otto Naegeli Prize. Silvia Arber is the daughter of microbiologist and geneticist Werner Arber, who was awarded the Nobel prize in 1978. She studied biology at the Biozentrum (Center for Molecular Life Sciences) in Basel and received her doctor’s degree from the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI). At the young age of 32, she became a professor at the Biozentrum and FMI, where she continues to teach and conduct research today.
The Great Microbiologist
*1929: Werner Arber, microbiologist and genetic scientist, was Director of the Center for Molecular Life Sciences (Biozentrum) for many years. In 1978 he received the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. From 2011 to 2017 he was appointed President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences – the first non-Catholic in the 400-year history of this institution.
Drawings That Move People
*1956: Silvia Bächli moved to Basel as a young woman in 1976 to train as an art teacher at the design school. She still lives here today, and has in the meantime become one of the greatest illustrators of our day. Her art is exhibited in renowned museums in Switzerland and abroad. In Basel, her work has been shown in the Kunsthalle and the Museum für Gegenwartskunst (Museum of Contemporary Art), among others. She was one of the few female Swiss artists to participate in the Venice Biennale in 2009. Silvia Bächli has received many awards for her work, including the Prix Meret Oppenheim. The city of Basel paid tribute to the artist by presenting her with the culture award in 2014.
«Joy Can Only Be Felt Through Giving»
*1886, †1968: Karl Barth, one of the great protestant theologians of the 20th century, was born in Basel. He was appointed Professor of Divinity at the University of Bonn in 1930, and dismissed again in 1934, when he refused to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. In 1935, he returned to Basel and taught Systematic Theology at the University until 1962. Barth was a co-founder of the «Confessing Church» and was always a critical observer of political events.
Jakob, Johann and Daniel Bernoulli
Breakthroughs in Mathematics
The Bernoulli family produced several distinguished mathematicians in the 17th and 18th centuries. Jakob, Johann and Daniel all discovered basic mathematical and physical principles, especially in the field of fluid mechanics, among others. The Bernoullis’ origins can be traced back to a Dutch protestant family who emigrated to Basel for religious reasons.
Ernst und Hildy Beyeler
The Art of Art Collecting
Ernst and Hildy Beyeler were great lovers of art. They collected works of the classical modern period – by Picasso, Mirò, and Seurat, among others – and ran an important gallery in Basel. The Beyelers were the life of the art scene in Basel. In 1970, they were part of the group that started «Art Basel», a trade fair that rapidly became the most influential international fair for modern and contemporary art. Today, the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen houses their important and very impressive collection.
The Luminous Symbolist
*1827, †1901: Arnold Böcklin was a painter, draughtsman, graphic artist and sculptor from Basel. His most famous picture, «Isle of the Dead», was very successful. He painted several versions of it, which can be seen in important museums in Europe and the USA. The first original painting is displayed at the Museum of Fine Art in Basel. Böcklin was a major representative of German Symbolism and one of the most important artists of his day.
The First Best-Selling Author
*1457, †1521: Sebastian Brandt wrote the most successful German book published before the reformation: «The Ship of Fools» is a moral satire in verse, describing the most common human vices. The book contains woodcut illustrations allegedly carved by Albrecht Dürer. Brant held lectures in law and worked as a lawyer, judge and author in Basel.
Master of Art Education
*1818, †1897: The image of Jacob Burckhardt has passed through many hands – since 1995, he is depicted on the one-thousand-franc note. Burckhardt is considered one of the fathers of modern art history. He was Professor of Art History and History at the University of Basel. His most famous books, «The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy» and «Reflections on History», established his reputation as a scholar.
Hollywood in Basel
*1927: The Basel-born film producer has won many prizes in his long career, including several Academy Awards. He was the first non-American producer to receive a star on the «Walk of Fame». Cohn still has a house in Basel, and regularly celebrates the European premiere of his films in his hometown.
*1942: Anyone who lives in Basel is familiar with Bettina Eichin’s most famous work: Perched at one end of the Mittlere Brücke, suitcase, shield and spear set on the ground behind her, the bronze sculpture “Helvetia auf Reisen” (“Helvetia on her travels”) appears lost in thought. In the 1960s, Bettina Eichin was one of the first women to choose the profession of sculptor and stonemason. Nowadays she no longer works with stone, but with bronze. In her studio in Basel, she creates works of art that carry messages for societal and political change into the world. The “Markttische” (“market stalls”) in the small cloister of the Basel Cathedral, for instance, remind us of the Sandoz chemical spill at Schweizerhalle in 1986.
Erasmus von Rotterdam
Humanist and Universal Scholar
*1469, †1536: The catholic clergyman came to Basel in 1514 to have his books printed in Johann Froben’s printing workshop. When the Reformation proved successful, Erasmus spent some years in Freiburg im Breisgau and returned to Basel in 1535. Upon his death in 1536, he left many writings that are still accessible today, thanks to his heir Bonifacius Amerbach ((Anker auf Amerbach)). Erasmus’ estate is kept at the Museum of History and at the University Library in Basel and can still be studied today. The fact that he was buried in the Basler Münster, a protestant church, even though he was a catholic clergyman, shows how well respected Erasmus was in Basel.
A Passion for Mathematics
*1707, †1783: What do ∑ and π have in common? Both symbols were introduced to mathematics by Leonhard Euler, a scholar from Basel. And they were not the only ones. Euler was incredibly productive: his list of works comprises over 800 research papers. He studied in Basel and was appointed to the St. Petersburg Academy by Daniel Bernoulli when he was still very young. Euler spent the rest of his life in St. Petersburg, apart from a few years in Berlin.
- Photo: Peter Hauck
Game, Set, Match
Born 1981: this Basel-born tennis star and Grand Slam winner 20 times over is often called the “best tennis player of all time”. And rightly so! On top of everything else, he held the position of number 1 in the world rankings for 310 weeks and can look back over a career that includes 103 championship victories. Federer trained as a boy at the Basel “Old Boys” tennis club, was a ball boy at the Basel ATP Tour and played at his “local” tournament, the Swiss Indoors Basel, whenever possible.
Johann Peter Hebel
A Song for Basel
*1760, †1826: Johann Peter Hebel was born in Basel and became a well-known local poet, theologian and teacher. He wrote his most successful books, «Alemannic Lyrical Poems» and «Calendar Stories», in the Alemannic vernacular. He felt very close to his birthplace all his life, as demonstrated by his collection of stories «Der Rheinische Hausfreund» (The Family Friend from the Rhine) and the song «Z’Basel an mym Rhy» (I wish I were in Basel...). This song became an anthem of sorts for Basel and is played every year at the carnival.
Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron
*Both 1950: Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have gained worldwide recognition with their architecture. Several of their buildings can be admired in the Basel area: the new exhibition centre, the Roche Tower, the St. Jakob-Park football stadium, the Schaulager (museum), the Signal Tower near the main station, or the VitraHouse (showroom at the Vitra Design Museum). More of their innovative work is scattered around the world: Tate Modern in London, the National Stadium in Beijing or the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.
Breakthrough in Basel
*1877, †1962: Hermann Hesse started his writing career in Basel, went away and returned later in his life. He first arrived as a young man in the autumn of 1899 to take up a job in a distinguished antique bookshop. His parents had close ties with several academic families in Basel, opening up a whole new intellectual and artistic cosmos for Hermann. Around 1903, the editor Samuel Fischer published Hesse’s «Peter Camenzind». This turned out to be his breakthrough as a writer. He stayed in Basel until 1904, married photographer Maria Bernoulli and moved with her to the country. He returned to Basel in 1924 to write the novel «Steppenwolf».
An Unintended High
*1906, †2008: Albert Hofmann was a chemical engineer from Basel. Between 1929 and 1971, he worked for Sandoz, isolating and synthesising the active pharmaceutical ingredients from important medical plants. By mere chance he discovered the hallucinogenic effects of LSD in 1943, which he then tested in a notorious self-experiment.
Carl Gustav Jung
Explorer of the collective unconscious
*1875, †1961: The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung was the first to establish the field of analytical psychology. Moving beyond Sigmund Freud's work, he explored the collective unconscious, creating concepts such as archetypes, complexes, shadows, animus and anima. He studied at the University of Basel and specialised in psychiatry following his experiences with unexplained poltergeist phenomena. He founded the Basel Psychological Society in 1933 and in the same year became president of the International General Medical Society for Psychotherapy. In 1945 he established the Swiss Society for Practical Psychology.
Hans Holbein the Younger
Strokes of Genius
*1497, †1543: Hans Holbein the Younger was a great artist in turbulent times. He originally came from Augsburg, but kept returning to Basel to work. In 1520, he acquired citizenship. Holbein left the city many great pictures, among which «Dead Christ in His Grave», dating from 1521, is probably the most fascinating. The painting is displayed at the Museum of Fine Art in Basel. It shows a tortured corpse in shocking detail – this is no Son of God arousing our compassion, but a dead and decaying human body. In Dostoevsky’s «The Idiot», the painting is said to have the power to destroy a person’s faith in God.
A Swiss Philosopher of Later Years
*1883, †1969: Karl Jaspers was a philosopher and psychiatrist with a worldwide reputation. He was an eminent scholar of his time, writing about philosophical, historical and political issues. His correspondence with Hannah Arendt is considered one of the most important documents of intellectual life in Germany in the 20th century. Jaspers was Professor of Philosophy in Heidelberg when the National Socialists forced him into retirement and banned him from publishing his works in 1938. He was bitterly disappointed in Germany’s politics after National Socialism, and accepted an appointment to the University of Basel in 1948. In 1967 he obtained Swiss citizenship.
A Voice for the Rainforest
*1954: Bruno Manser was born in Basel and devoted his life to the indigenous peoples of Malaysia, campaigning against the lumber industry’s destruction of the rainforest. Between 1984 and 1990 he lived in Malaysia with the Penan people, one of the last nomad tribes of the rainforest. Subsequently he was evicted and declared persona non grata by the Malaysian government. He disappeared shortly after returning to Malaysia in 2000, and has been missing ever since. His legacy is the Bruno Manser Fund, which he set up himself in Basel. The fund continues Bruno Manser’s work.
The Devout Benefactress
*1806, †1886: Basel owes its rich social and cultural life in large part to Christoph and Margaretha Merian. Margaretha Burckhardt grew up in Basel as the daughter of a silk ribbon manufacturer. After leaving school, she married Christoph Merian, also the son of a wealthy Basel family. His family gave the couple the country estate Brüglingen on the outskirts of Basel as a wedding gift. Christoph Merian inherited his parents’ large fortune, which he continued to grow through skilful asset management. Christoph and Margaretha remained childless. They led a pious life and supported a number of social and religious works. When Margaretha Merian died in 1886, she left her fortune to the city of Basel, which used it to establish the influential Christoph Merian Foundation.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
The Tragic Philosopher
*1844, †1900: Between 1869 and 1879, Friedrich Nietzsche was Professor of Classical Philology in Basel. It was here that he published his first larger work, «The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music». It was also here that he changed from academic, teacher, and admirer of Wagner to the philosopher who shook the foundation of all European values and traditions. By 1879 his health and eyesight had deteriorated so badly that he was forced to retire. Afterwards, he remained stateless and travelled through Europe, working whenever he could. In 1889 he suffered a mental breakdown and returned to Basel to spend a few days in the psychiatric clinic before returning to Germany, where he died, having lost his mental powers, and unaware of the growing recognition of his work.
Father of the Helvetic Constitution
*1752, †1821: Peter Ochs made history in more than one sense. He wrote a book about the history of the city of Basel and the surrounding area («Geschichte der Stadt und Landschaft Basel»). He also drew up the constitution of the short-lived Helvetic Republic, which his political adversaries ridiculed as the «Ochsenbüchlein» («ox booklet»). However, the Swiss Constitution is still based on Ochs’ original ideas. His views were liberal and influenced by the Enlightenment, a stance that many contemporaries did not appreciate. In fact, Ochs was so unpopular in conservative circles that his sons took their mother’s last name.
A Surreal Beauty
*1913, †1985: Meret Oppenheim was a member of the «Gruppe 33», a group of artists from Basel. Later, she became famous with the surrealists in Paris. One of her most important works is «Déjeuner en fourrure», a fur cup displayed at the Museum of Modern Art New York. Oppenheim posed for Man Ray’s series «Erotique Voilée», after which she was called the «muse of the surrealists». She was born near Basel and spent her childhood there. She later lived in Basel, Paris, Bern and Ticino.
Medicine for All!
*1493, †1541: Paracelsus was the first scholar to lecture in German at the medical faculty in Basel. The physician, alchemist, astrologist, mystic and philosopher – his original name was Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim – had studied in Latin at the University of Basel. When he returned as a professor in 1527, he taught in German, thus opening his lectures to the general public. The physicians and apothecaries of his day did not like this. Paracelsus was a severe critic of his fellow physicians, who took all their knowledge from books. He was persecuted for his views and had to flee several times. In 1528 he left Basel to evade an unwinnable lawsuit. Despite his bad reputation, his success as a physician and healer was legendary. He died in Salzburg in 1541.
Enea Silvio Piccolomini
The Pope from Basel
*1405, †1464: Enea Silvio Piccolomini wrote a famous description of Basel around 1433. A lawyer and poet, he stayed in the city during the Council of Basel with Cardinal Domenico Capranica. In 1458, Piccolomini was declared Pope Pius II. In this position he helped Basel found Switzerland’s oldest university in 1460.
Cortisone and Vitamin C
*1897, †1996: Tadeus Reichstein discovered the therapeutic effects of cortisone, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine along with his research team. Reichstein also developed a method for synthetically producing vitamin C. Thanks to him, the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche produced over 50 kilos of vitamin C as early as 1934. Reichstein came to Basel in 1938 to become director of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the university. In 1946 he also became Professor of Organic Chemistry. From 1960 to 1967 he was Director of the Institute of Organic Chemistry.
Married to the Reformation
*1504, †1564: Wibrandis Rosenblatt led an eventful life in turbulent times. She lived in Basel, Strasbourg and Cambridge, experiencing not only the upheaval of the Reformation, but also personal misfortune. She was married and widowed four times. As the wife of three influential reformers – Johannes Oekolampad, Johann Wolfgang Capito and Martin Butzer – she openly professed her protestant faith. This was a courageous deed, since becoming a clergyman’s wife was still considered a provocation. Rising to the challenge, Wibrandis Rosenblatt set the standards for this new role: Besides housekeeping and raising the children, she always had an open door for people in need, hosted reformers like Huldrych Zwingli in her home, and gave asylum to religious refugees. After her death in 1564, Wibrandis Rosenblatt was buried in the cloister of the Basel Cathedral.
Iris von Roten
The Progressive Thinker
*1917, †1990: Iris von Roten, an early advocate for women’s rights, grew up in a well-off family in Basel. She was uncompromising in her demands for equal rights for men and women, a vision she accomplished in her private life. After her daughter Hortensia was born, she continued to work as a lawyer, journalist and writer. Iris von Roten became the talk of the town in 1958 when her book “Frauen im Laufgitter” was published. In the book, she demanded advancements like women’s suffrage that would still take many years to achieve. “Frauen im Laufgitter” was rediscovered in the 1980s and has been considered a classic of feminist literature ever since.
Great Patron of the Arts
*1896, †1989: Maja Sacher was a driving force in Basel’s cultural scene. She was acquainted with well-known artists such as Max Ernst, Jean Tinguely or Piet Mondrian, and it was thanks to her efforts that the first public museum in Europe dedicated exclusively to contemporary art was opened in Basel in 1980. In 1921, the young Maja Stehlin married Emanuel Hoffmann, son of the founder of the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche. The couple shared a passion for contemporary art and began collecting. After the early death of her husband, the widowed Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin continued in her commitment to the arts and established the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation. The Kunstmuseum Basel (Museum of Fine Art) owes many of its important modern works to her. In 1934, she was married a second time, to conductor Paul Sacher. Thanks to Maja Sacher’s considerable fortune, the couple was able to support the work of more than sixty composers, including Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky.
*1906, †1999: Paul Sacher was a musician and influential patron of music in Basel. He founded the Basel Chamber Orchestra, the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and the Paul Sacher Foundation for Contemporary Music. He commissioned Béla Bartók, Igor Strawinsky, Richard Strauss and many others to write original musical works, thus supporting the composers and advancing the music of the 20th century. His funds came from his wife Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin, widow of Emanuel Hoffmann, whose father Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche had founded the pharmaceutical company. Today, the Paul Sacher Foundation administers the estates of many important composers and attracts researchers and musicians from all over the world.
Meta von Salis
Pioneer of Women’s Rights
*1855, †1929: Meta von Salis was the first woman historian of Switzerland. She was born into an aristocratic family and grew up in Marschlins Castle near Landquart in the Swiss canton of Grisons. Early on in her life, she suffered from not having the same privileges as the men in her family. In 1883, she enrolled at the University of Zurich, against the will of her father, to study history and philosophy. After graduation, she became a writer, journalist and speaker, passionately advocating the rights of women. In 1887, she was the first in German-speaking Switzerland to call for women’s suffrage. From 1910 until her death in 1929, Meta von Salis lived in Basel with her lifelong friend and partner Hedwig Kym and Kym’s husband.
Top Ten Tennis Player
*1978: The tennis player from Bottmingen near Basel made it to the top ten of the ATP ranking. She won several spectacular matches against No. 1 players like Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis and Serena Williams. She resigned in 2011 after 16 years of international world-class tennis. It has been providing commentary for Swiss Fedcup games aired on Swiss television since 2016.
*1925, †1991: Jean Tinguely – the man who turned scrap into art – grew up in Basel. He was trained as an interior decorator at the local trade school. After his wedding to Eva Aeppli, he moved to Paris but remained closely connected to Basel throughout his life. Tinguely’s «Carnival Fountain» near the theatre is a magical spot right in the city centre that captivates passers-by. Many other works are on display at the «Museum Jean Tinguely» in Basel. His second wife was the famous artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whom he married in 1971.
At Home in Drama and Prose
*1938, †2014: Urs Widmer was a writer, playwright and translator from Basel. He has received many literary awards. His insights into human nature were ironic, yet poetic, and always full of humour, while unmasking many uncomfortable truths. His two autobiographical novels «My Mother’s Lover” and «My Father’s Book» received much international attention. Widmer’s most successful play «Top Dogs» revolves around top managers who were made redundant, and has met with much critical acclaim.
The Power of Place
*1943: He is a perfectionist, maverick, craftsman, and genius. Architect Peter Zumthor always follows his hand and his heart when creating architecture. The process results in buildings that are firmly rooted in their surroundings. In 2009 he was awarded the Pritzker Prize for his achievements. Among his most famous buildings are the Therme Vals (Switzerland) and the Kunsthaus Bregenz (Austria).
Biologist, anthropologist and philosopher
*1897, †1982: A native of Basel, Adolf Portmann wrote his doctoral thesis on ordonata (dragonflies) at the University of Basel in 1921. He subsequently spent time in Geneva, Munich, Paris and Berlin, as well as the marine laboratories of Banyuls-sur-Mer, Roscoff, Villefranche-sur-Mer and Helgoland researching sea slugs. In 1931, Adolf Portmann became Professor for Zoology at the University of Basel. A versatile researcher, Portmann studied the behaviour of birds, the morphology (comparative anatomy) of vertebrates and ontogenetic development, especially of human beings, which led him to his conclusion that the early years of human development distinguish man from other species. In 1976, Adolf Portmann received the Golden Medal of the Humboldt Society.
Main works: Die Tiergestalt (Animal Forms and Patterns), 1948, Einführung in die vergleichende Morphologie der Wirbeltiere (Introduction to the Comparative Morphology of Vertebrates), 1959, Das Tier als soziales Wesen (Animals as Social Beings), 1953 and Biologie und Geist (Biology and the Phenomenon of the Spiritual), 1956