Crystallography in Zürich - a historical review

Crystallographic research started in Zürich in 1856, one year after the foundation of the Polytechnical college, which later became the ETH. A. Kenngott described the crystals of alpine minerals with the classical methods of morphological crystallography. Under his successor U. Grubenmann, the main activities in the Institut für Mineralogie und Petrographie were in the field of petrography. After the move of the Institute from the main building to the Naturwissenschaften-Gebäude on Sonneggstrasse in 1920, a very fruitful time of crystallography started in Zürich with P. Niggli. His famous monograph Geometrische Kristallographie des Diskontinuums was a fundamental contribution to structural crystallography and remained an important reference book until 1935, when the Internationale Tabellen appeared, again with P. Niggli and E. Brandenberger from Zürich as co-authors. Furthermore, crystal chemistry and the application of group representation theory to crystal physics were important fields of P. Niggli's crystallographic research. In order to appreciate the exceptional scientific significance of P. Niggli, it should be noted that his research and teaching activities were in fact divided rather equally between three main fields, namely petrography, mineralogy and crystallography. In 1959, under the leadership of F. Laves, the successor of P. Niggli, the institute was reorganized as the Institut für Kristallographie und Petrographie. The main research activities were crystallography of feldspars and metals, and their real structures in contrast to the idealized perfect crystal structure description. The "Laves school" was very successful: 20 members of the institute became professors of crystallography, mainly in Germany.

      Paul Niggli  	        Fritz Laves             Alfred Niggli

Crystal structure analysis as an important tool for chemical research attracted so much interest in the mid-century, that in 1957 the chemical laboratories of the ETH decided to create their own chemical crystallography group under the leadership of J. Dunitz. The first automatic and computer controlled diffractometers were acquired by this group, and were later replaced by several CAD-4 instruments. At the Institut für Kristallographie und Petrographie, a chair of crystal structure research was installed in 1961 and A. Niggli appointed. A Picker diffractometer was bought in 1966 (still functional) and a few years later a Syntex P21. A. Niggli also served as Rector of the University Zürich from 1972-1974. W.M. Meier became the third professor of crystallography at the institute in 1966. His main interests were in the fields of crystal chemistry of zeolites and powder diffraction. One of the first computer controlled powder diffractometers was built in his group in 1973.

The increasing importance of crystallographic methods in molecular biology led to the appointment of T. J. Richmond as professor of crystallography of biological macromole-cules at the Institute for Molecular Biology and Biophysics in 1987. After the retirement of F. Laves (1976), J. Dunitz (1990), W. M. Meier (1992), and the sudden death of A. Niggli (1985), a reorganisation of crystallography took place in 1993 when W. Steurer accepted the position of joint (ETH and University of Zürich) professor of crystallography and a new Laboratorium für Kristallographie (LfK) was founded. With the appointment of M. Kunz, assistant professor for high-pressure crystallography in 1997, a strong link to earth sciences was established.


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