A pioneer in aviation research

June 03, 2024

The mathematician Irmgard Flügge-Lotz died 50 years ago. She was one of the first female researchers in aeronautical engineering and worked at a predecessor organization of today's German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization (MPI-DS) in Göttingen. In the 1930s, she succeeded in making the design of airplanes easier to calculate.

Irmgard Lotz was born in Hamelin on July 16, 1903. In 1929, she was the only woman to receive a doctorate in applied mathematics from the Technical University of Hanover. She wanted to be part of the dream of flying ever since she witnessed the launch of zeppelins as a child. Back in 1929, Lotz was the only woman to be employed at the Aerodynamic Research Institute Göttingen (AVA) - the cradle of aviation research. There she soon succeeded in impressing the internationally renowned “father of aviation research” Ludwig Prandtl. In 1931, she solved an important problem in Prandtl's so-called aerofoil theory: “Thanks to her, the calculation of aircraft wings was significantly simplified at the time,” says Prof. Andreas Dillmann, Director of the DLR Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology in Göttingen.

Leader of scientists and calculators

From then on, she led a group of female scientists and calculators (before the computer age, calculations were mostly carried out by women). “Irmgard Lotz is thus one of the few female department heads of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society,” says Eberhard Bodenschatz from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, the successor to the former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

When Prandtl proposed Lotz as a research professor in 1937, the application was rejected by the Reich Aviation Ministry - probably due to the National Socialist attitude towards women. In 1938, Irmgard Lotz married the engineering scientist Wilhelm Flügge and took the name Flügge-Lotz. In the same year, she followed her husband to Berlin to the German Aviation Research Institute (DVL). While her husband became head of department there, she had to make do with a job as a scientific consultant for aerodynamics and the dynamics of flight.

Call to Stanford University

After the end of the Second World War, the French recruited the couple to an aeronautical research institute in Paris. There they worked as equal group leaders. In 1948, Wilhelm Flügge was offered a position at Stanford University in the USA. Irmgard Flügge-Lotz followed - but initially only with the rank of lecturer, although she fulfilled the duties of a professor. In 1960, she was finally appointed Professor of Technical Mechanics, Aeronautics and Astronautics. Flügge-Lotz continued her research until her retirement in 1968 and beyond, until her death on May 22, 1974 in Palo Alto, California.

While Flügge-Lotz received numerous honors and awards in the USA, she remained almost unknown in Germany. At the DLR site in Göttingen, a meeting room will soon be named after her and thus for the first time after a woman.

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