Friday, January 10, 2014

My (Distant) Kamerlingh Onnes Cousins

As we all know, genealogy can take us anywhere. We don't know what we'll find when exploring down some dark alley. A few days ago, I was researching some distant Moll Schnitzler cousins when I came across a photo from 1928 of the staff of the Bureau voor Handelsinlichting in Amsterdam. The man standing at left was A.J. Moll Schnitzler. The surprise came when I looked at the names of the people. The man sitting in front of Anthony Julius was O. Kamerlingh Onnes.

25th Anniversary of the Bureau voor Handelsinlichting, 1928.
Now then, "Moll Schnitzler" is not a common name. Everyone with that name is a distant blood cousin of mine. Likewise, with the exception of one person, everyone named "Kamerlingh Onnes" is also a distant blood cousin of mine. A bit of investigation revealed that Onno Kamerlingh Onnes was my 4th cousin twice removed. I was intrigued, and decided to do a side trip into the Kamerlingh Onnes family.

Some twenty years ago or so, I received an e-mail from a distant cousin stating that I was related to not just one, but two Nobel Prize recipients, Hendrik Antoon Lorentz (second cousin twice removed) and Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (4th cousin twice removed). As someone interested in science, I was surprised and honored to be related to two of the most significant scientists of the early 20th Century.

Heike (1853-1926) was the oldest of seven children of Harm Kamerlingh Onnes (1819-1880) and Anna Gerdina Coers (1829-1899). (I'm related via the Coers family.) Heike is best known for his research into the properties of matter at extremely low temperatures, which earned him his Nobel Prize. In particular, he was the first to liquefy helium and the first to observe the property of superconductivity.

Onno (1861-1935), pictured above, was the fifth child of the family, and was the director of the Bureau voor Handelsinlichting. However, later in life he became an artist, following in the footsteps of other close family members.

Their brother Menso (1860-1925) was a relatively famous portrait artist. Among his subjects were professors at the University of Leiden, including his brother Heike and Hendrik Lorentz. One of his more famous portraits hangs in the Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden, portraying his sister Jenny (1863-1926).

Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, painted by Menso Kamerlingh Onnes
Jenny Kamerlingh Onnes, painted by her brother Menso
Menso's son Harm (1893-1985) was also an artist, working in a variety of media, including drawings, watercolors, oil paintings, and ceramics. Some of his designs for stained-glass windows depict discoveries and instruments of contemporary physicists, including, again, Lorentz.

Fall trees in the city park, painted by Harm Kamerlingh Onnes
Stained-glass windows designed by Harm Kamerlingh Onnes depicting the Zeeman effect with explanation by Hendrik Antoon Lorentz
The connections to the arts do not end there. For a time, Menso shared a studio with artist Florist Verster (1861-1927), who in 1892 married Menso's sister Jenny. Verster was known for his bold and colorful still-life and landscape paintings, many of which hang in museums in the Netherlands.

Of the other three siblings, one died in infancy and the others emigrated to North America and India.

Throughout this missive, I've mentioned physicist Hendrik Lorentz. Clearly, there were connections between Lorentz and the Kamerlingh Onnes family. But it's not clear whether or not they knew that they themselves were distant cousins. Lorentz was a fifth cousin to Heike and his siblings. Getting back to the photo that initiated this diversion, Onno Kamerlingh Onnes was not a blood relative to his coworker Anthony Julius Moll Schnitzler. However, they also probably did not know that a distant great grand uncle of one was married to a distant great grand aunt of the other.

For additional details about this family, start with my page on their father, Harm Kamerlingh Onnes.