UCB Libraries


Seeking the Truth About a UCB Inscription

by William Weber, University Museum, CU-Boulder
Silver and Gold Record, March 20, 2008


I am writing to shed some light on the intriguing inscription on the Denison Arts and Sciences Building on the CU-Boulder campus: "Suche die Wahrheit und frage nicht ob sie nutzt." Seek the truth, and do not ask its usefulness. I hope to correct some misconceptions that were published in the Boulder Camera on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008, and written by Silvia Pettem, Boulder's historian, from an interview with Professor Eckart Schutrumpf of the classics department.


I am a retired professor emeritus, 89 years old, and have served on the faculty for 61 years. My office is in the Museum Collections Building (the old Geology Building), and Denison is near the museum. For many years, as I walked by Denison I have read that quote, carved on stone shields at the two western cornices and pondered on its origin. Why was it put there, and who originally said it?


In the late 1940s I became fascinated by the inscription, which I read using my binoculars, and tried to find information on its authorship. I sent the motto to a group in Cambridge, England, that specialized in locating the origins of quotations. I received only the curt reply: "This is not good German." Presumably this was because the Denison building version used "ob" (whether) instead of "was" (what). At the time, our library facilities had no archive nor enough depth to enable me to follow up on the problem, so I let it drift.


Sixty years later, the Internet provided one of the answers. Among hundreds of other similar quotations, Google provides a single instance of that exact quotation. Professor Friedrich Bergius received the 1931 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Google has published his entire acceptance speech, which reveals that as a student he studied at the University of Breslau. He stated that whenever he entered the laboratory there, he walked beneath this inscription, and it made such an impression on him that he used it as his guide for the future.


But how did this inscription find its way onto the corners of the western walls of Denison building at the University of Colorado? The answer comes from the archives of the Norlin Library, where there is a slim folder containing some of what we know of Henry Strong Denison and the history of the building named for him. The archive houses a slim folder comprising a brief typewritten biography of Denison by Jonathan Spencer in 1979 and a detailed discussion of the plans for the Denison building, its financing, its completion in 1914, and its ultimate fate as a medical edifice. Much more information can be found in the library of the CU School of Medicine.


Henry Strong Denison was one of a long and distinguished family that included a number of physicians. He was a young instructor at the university but died prematurely at the age of 29, the result of an accidental poisoning, so never had a chance to become a professor and leave his mark scientifically. Why then is there a building bearing his name? His mother, devastated by her son's death, provided the money to build a fine building, modeled after the Sorbonne in Paris, to his memory. She also had her son's guiding motto inscribed on the walls as an inspiration to those who passed by and looked up. It is in full view of anyone coming on to the campus from the direction of the Colorado Bookstore.


The building was to have been the first in a complex for a medical school. It has served as a cancer research laboratory and bacteriology classrooms. Only the first wing, which would have been one of three, was ever built, so the east end is still red brick. In 1924, the decision was made to give the Medical School its own campus in Denver. By the way, there is a Denison Memorial Library, named for Denison's father, who was a physician for the University from 1881 to 1885. Also, a William Denison, possibly a relative, born in the same Vermont town, who came to Steamboat Springs as a tubercular and died shortly after at age 29, was responsible for the first public library there, the William Denison Memorial Library (Dee Richards, Steamboat Round the Bend, 1976).


During the summer of 1910 young Henry Strong Denison went to Europe to study preventative medicine and public hygiene at the University of Breslau under a Dr. Pfeiffer. While in Breslau he ran across the German quotation which he adopted as his life's motto. Neither he nor Prof. Bergius were contemporaries at the university (Bergius attended the university in 1903-04 and 1905-07), but the spell of the motto caused both to devote their lives to science.


Part of my reason for telling this interesting story is to point out that the University possesses an excellent archive that ought to be known and recognized as a source of original information about matters concerning Colorado and the University. I am most grateful for the support of David Hays, university archivist, and his kind assistance.