Edith Bloch Fehr 1911 — 2013
Edith Bloch Fehr died at her home in Greenwich, Connecticut, on August 12, 2013, ten days after her 102nd birthday. She was born in Munich in 1911, the first of three siblings. Her parents, Gustav Bloch and Clemy née Untermayer, both came from families of prosperous dry-goods merchants. Edith’s brother Robert was born in 1914, their brother Peter K in 1919.
From childhood, Edith found a role model in her maternal grandmother, Berta Kohn Untermayer, of nearby Augsburg. Widowed in her 30s, “Grossi” (Granny) continued on her own to run the lingerie and linen business she had established with her late husband, Michael Untermayer. They specialized in trousseaus.
Edith was Grossi’s favorite grandchild. Visiting Augsburg, she acquired an inside knowledge of manufacturing, inventory control, finance, and customer service. As Grossi’s frequent travel companion to the garden spots of Europe, she developed an early taste for exploration and the good life. Edith often told the story of the day she ran away from home and took a train, by herself, to Grossi’s.
At home in Munich, the influences were powerful, too. Edith’s father, an intellectual ill-suited to the business world he was born into, shared with his children his passion for philosophy, culture, and the arts. Her mother set uncompromising standards as a homemaker and in the kitchen; her hand-written recipes remained a prize possession of Edith’s to the end of her life. Weekly outings to the surrounding countryside fed her love for nature and the outdoors. The Blochs’ circle of family and friends was extensive.
Edith wanted to study medicine, a profession her father regarded as unfeminine, so she settled for biochemical engineering. In 1935, as one of only two female students at Technische Hochschule in Munich, she earned the equivalent of a masters of science at the top of her class. But the Bloch family was of Jewish ancestry. Under mounting political pressure from the Nazis, her department head had no choice but to shave her grade-point average. At the same time, he wrote her a glowing letter of introduction to Mt. Sinai Hospital, in New York. In spring 1936, Edith embarked for the United States, where she immediately found employment at the Mt. Sinai laboratory. Together with other family members already established in America, she fought the uphill battle to obtain visas for those still under threat in Europe, in more cases than not with success.
While still at Mt. Sinai, Edith earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia, awarded in 1939 after only two years. By 1940, she had published seven papers. Over the decades that followed, she continued to conduct research at the Schering Company, in Bloomfield, NJ; the General Electric Corporation, Schenectady, NY; the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, also in Schenectady; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY; and Yale University, New Haven, CT. Many further publications followed, as did numerous patents in a variety of highly specialized fields, ranging from synthetic organic chemistry to radar and reactor technology.
At a Halloween party at the Columbia University International House in 1937, a fellow student introduced Edith to Robert O. (“Bob”) Fehr, a strikingly handsome non-practicing Jew from Berlin, who was working as an engineer at General Electric. They married in 1941 and settled in Schenectady. They adopted two sons: David in 1949, and Thomas in 1952.
In 1961, Bob left General Electric to teach mechanical engineering at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. In 1963, the family moved to Holland, where Bob established a factory and sales offices for the pioneering ultrasound firm Branson Electronics. Two years later, the company was sold, and the Fehrs returned to United States, settling on Round Hill Road in Greenwich, CT. This was Edith and Bob’s final home.
Edith and Bob were blessed with unflagging energy, enterprise, curiosity, and good will. Each left the other space to pursue a demanding career with dedication and success, yet they also reserved ample time for each other, friends, family, travel, and recreation. Favorite retreats were their lakefront property in the Adirondacks, outside Speculator, NY, and Aspen, CO. They loved the Rockies for the hiking and skiing, as well as for the Aspen Music Festival and the intellectual stimulation of the Aspen Institute. Though Bob’s health began to fail in 1993, he continued to make the most of his remaining years. He passed away in 1998 at age 87.
In addition to her scientific work, Edith was proficient in needlepoint and weaving, producing and displaying museum-quality pieces into her 90s. She was dedicated to equal opportunity, freedom, and justice. Convinced that wars solve nothing, she was a lifelong pacifist. In her Greenwich years, she was active as a member of the Women’s Democratic Party.
Edith is survived by her son David, her grandchildren Daniel and Adam, her great grandchildren, Ava and Melanie. The arts and education were causes close to Edith’s heart.