Validating Dr. Gschwendtner’s Story

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This article is part of the VES Project’s essay, Digital Historical Sounding and the VES Project: Using the Web for historical research (or for competitive intelligence analysis).

key words

DHS: Web search initial key words.

Dr. Gschwendtner, a mysterious physics teacher

We found his name on a list in a book. But, when we asked questions about him, no one but for Hungarian-Venezuelan physicist Hanjal Ildikó Fenyés remembered his name. She is the daughter of Dr. Iván Fenyés, a Hungarian-Venezuelan mechanical engineer who is among the founders of the School of Mechanical Engineering, Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). The VES project, concurrently with our research about Dr. Gschwendtner, was also carrying out a study about her life (Hanjal Ildikó Fenyés is the first woman physics professor at UCV, her story has already been published, in Spanish, see here). In 1947, Hanjal Ildikó Fenyés immigrated to Venezuela together with her family. They had all become Second World War refugees who travelled to Venezuela on board the American ship, USAT General M. B. Stewart. Then, she was only ten years old. On her visits to the UCV campus, she remembers seeing her father drinking coffee and talking with Dr. Gschwendtner. But she did not know much about him except that Dr. Gschwendtner had a wife abroad and wrote letters to her.

Thus, all we knew about Dr. Gschwendtner was his –hispanicized– name, Juan, and the fact that he had been a teacher of introductory physics courses at Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) between 1957 and 1960, and that, in 1963, his name was not listed as a faculty member. The first few searches turned out a result that extended the research period to 1950 (a digital fragment was found indicating that Juan Gschwendtner had also taught an introductory physics course for Biology majors in the academic period, 1950-1951). All other searches for Juan Gschwendtner turned into dead ends.

At some point, while applying our Digital Historical Sounding methodology, we decided to drop the name ‘Juan’ off from our list of key words, and instead add the anglicised name ‘John’. Our web searches using the key words John + Gschwendtner + Venezuela + Universidad produced two papers about two Venezuelan hydrological features (Lake Valencia, 1963 and Motatán River, 1964) that he had published in the journal, International Association of Scientific Hydrology Bulletin. Thus, by looking at the content of articles, we knew we were on the right track. One of the articles (1964) extended the research period to 1949 (in the acknowledgement section, Dr. Gschwendtner said that he had been involved in elaboration of the preliminary report of May, 1949, on the Hydrology of the Río Capaya).

Gschwendtner paper v2

Motatan Gschwendtner

Notice that in these two papers his name appears as John v. G. Gschwendtner and that his academic affiliation, besides Universidad Central de Venezuela, also includes the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania (for details see the Lake Valencia’s paper and the Motatán River’s paper). The word ‘Scranton’ was added to our key words and we stopped looking at Spanish web sites (i.e. we filtered out all content in Spanish).

Next, we searched within the University of Scranton portals and used search engines to scan the “surface web”, in our first searches we found nothing. However, we kept searching until, finally, we found the online transcript of a spiritual session with psychic George Anderson. Below, we provide a summary of the information in the transcript which we then deemed of interest for our search (the complete transcript is here, An example of his spiritual gift):

Dr. Gschwendtner had served on the faculties of three New York City area colleges, including Columbia University. He had earned his doctorate in physics from the prestigious University of Vienna in 1940 (….) Dr. Gschwendtner (….. ) gave us (….) an incredible account of his early life. He was unwillingly conscripted into the German military early in the war, but because of his scientific background, he was assigned to the meteorological service of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, where he achieved the rank of Captain. In 1942, he made a bold but dangerous escape from Germany to neutral Switzerland. His treacherous journey took him through the heavily guarded and fortified German border patrolled by soldiers with attack dogs. Capture, of course, would have meant certain execution as a deserter. That he eluded the Nazis was miraculous. However, once in Switzerland, Gschwendtner was not a free man. The Swiss detained and interrogated him. To prove that he had nothing to hide Gschwendtner revealed to the Swiss certain technical details about the German military, including some secret codes.

(…) John Gschwendtner acknowledged that there was no way George could have had prior access to the information he brought forth during the reading. “I can tell you there were things George told me that no one in the United States ever knew, things I never told anyone since I came to this country in 1960.”

We took these data as information that begged to be validated with more trustworthy sources. ‘New York’ was added as a key word. Since Scranton, PA is quite close to the New York State border, we assumed that Scranton was one of the three New York City area colleges mentioned in the transcript, and we began looking for clues about the other two colleges (i.e. we assumed that the person was loosely speaking when he said “three New York City area colleges;” by the way, so far, the claim that he taught at Columbia has not been verified).

Adding New York to our set of key words produced one new result. It turns out that Dowling College, a small liberal arts college in Oakdale, Long Island, State of New York, created an oral history project with a website named, Born in the Sixties. Inside this website there are several audios related to Dr. Gschwendtner.

By listening the audios, we learned that, by 1967, Dr. Gschwendtner was a professor of physics at Dowling, that he spoke English with heavy German accent, that he often told in class that he had been a captain in the Luftwaffe and that some people in the audios did not referred to him as ‘John Gschwendtner’ but as ‘Johannes Gschwendtner’.  As a result ‘Dowling’ and ‘Johannes’ were added to our key words list.

In one of the audios, physicist Kevin Bedell (B. Sc., Dowling, 1971; Ph. D. Physics, Stony Brook University, presently Rourke Professor of Physics at Boston College) while remembering his life as student at Dowling said: “It was 1967 when John Gschwendtner, who was a professor of physics at that time, a new professor in the department…” This digital audio fragment placed Dr. Gschwendtner at Dowling in 1967.

Born in the Sixties

Next, we found evidence that, by 1997, Dr. Gschwendtner had already passed away (in 1997, English professor James Tate delivered a speech¹ to honor professor Irwin Oder. In the text of his speech –Ode to Oder– one can read the following words: “John Gschwendtner no longer lives”).

Our searches in the surface web produced no more results. But, when we looked into the deep web, we found several undergraduate catalogs of the University of Scranton in the web portal (years 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1964), and we came across this fragment: “Johannes von Gozdava Gschwendtner, Associate Professor of Physics, Ph.D., University of Vienna.”


Now that we knew his full German name (not Juan Gschwendtner) and, having found again information about of his earning a doctorate degree from the University of Vienna–this time from a more reliable source– we contacted said university and, a few days later, received an email from HR Mag. Thomas Maisel, MAS (Leiter des Archivs der Universität Wien):

Johann (Hannes) Gschwendtner, born on, March 4th, 1916, in Vienna, attended the University of Vienna from winter term 1936/37 until 1939/40. He was awarded a PhD on January 29th, 1940. The title of his doctoral thesis reads:

Die Temperaturabhängigkeit der Röntgeninterferenzen von Seignottesalzkristallen und Schmelzen.

His thesis was supervised by Dozent (Associate Professor) Franziska Seidl  and Professor Egon von Schweidler.  The university archive’s holdings do not contain any documents referring to Gschwendtner’s military service, thus I can give you no information on Gschwendtner’s whereabouts after his graduation. There is no picture either.

Gschwendtner Flow diagram

Diagram showing how our search verified some of the claims made in the transcript of the spiritual session.

We now focused our investigation on trying to get a photograph of professor Johannes von Gozdava Gschwendtner. We contacted Professor Kurt Fisher of Dowling College. He was among the people interviewed in the Born in the Sixties oral history project (in the audio track we listened, he remembers how, as a young Ph.D. graduate, one day in the Fall 1968, he was interviewed by Dr. Gschwendtner for a job position at Dowling). He kindly replied to our email.

Professor Kurt Fisher Testimonial (10/01/2012):

Dr. Gschwendtner retired from Dowling College around 1980, give or take a year or so. (I just retired this year.) A picture of him exists in at least one of the old College yearbooks and should be archived in the Dowling library. As for published papers, he never discussed that with me so I can only point to others with whom he was more closely associated. One is his doctoral student, Lionel Daniel; Dr. G. was his thesis advisor. The last I heard was that Dr. Daniel was teaching at Suffolk Community College. The other is Dr. Kevin Bedell, our most successful Physics graduate, who heads the Physics Department at Boston University. He was closely mentored by Dr. G. prior to embarking on graduate study towards the PhD at SUNY, Stony Brook. When there were not enough physics courses to teach, Dr. G. developed and taught courses in Philosophy of Science, Thanatology (Philosophy of Death), remedial mathematics, etc. He was very versatile. That’s about all I can remember; I hope it is helpful. Sincerely, Kurt Fisher

Here, in this brief summary, we cannot go into all the details of this case (full details are disclosed in our academic paper). In 2012, prior to our publication of his story in the Bitácora-e peer review journal, we published the status of the investigation (in Spanish) on the Internet but without his picture. We had exhausted all possibilities but we were unable to find it.


Finding a photograph

However, throughout all this time, we had persistent searches running, and, in 2013, we got a message that led us to the University of Scranton Yearbooks (someone had digitized the yearbooks and uploaded them to Internet). And, at last, we were able to get a few pictures of Professor Gschwendtner.


Gschwendtner’s SSN and Birth Certificate

We also managed to get his social security number (189-34-0458, corresponding to the State of Pennsylvania) and his birth certificate from the Vienna Municipality. Now, we have information about his parents and, since there were a few claims in the transcript of the spiritual session about both his parents being members of Catholic religious orders (monk and nun) before marrying, we are now in a position to seek to validate this claim as well.

(Ref. MA 8 – B-AW 924864/2013) gschwendtner birth certificate

It turns out that in Austria, there is an official archive for religious orders (Ordensgemeinschaften Österreich). We contacted this office but we were told that we needed to narrow down the search by providing them with the names of the religious orders to which Dr.Gschwendtner’s parents belonged to prior to their marriage. But, we moved on to study some other cases, and, for the time being, stopped researching his life in Austria.

However, we continue researching about his life in Venezuela. Recently, out from the deep web, we were able to pull out the following digital fragment (it is an unindexed, non OCR document, and therefore it can not be seen by the standard search engines) from a 1963 issue of the Bulletin of the Venezuelan Academy of Science² –notice that his name was misspelt.

Gschwendtner UCV Meteorologia Boletin Acfiman

Digital fragment obtained from ALVAREZ, Roberto J. (1963) Enseñanza actual de la meteorología e hidrología en Venezuela, Boletín de la Academia de Física, Matemáticas y Ciencias Naturales.

Thus, we now have evidence that, even though, he was not a tenured professor but an adjunct professor who worked as a hydrologist for the Venezuelan Ministry of Public Works (MOP– Ministerio de Obras Públicas) – we got this information from another source –, he was the founder of the Hydrometeorology Engineering Department at Central University of Venezuela, and the first head of this department.

Dr. Gschwendtner had been a forgotten figure in the annals of the history of Venezuelan science and technology. There is a condensed history of the Hydrology of Venezuela that was published in year 2000³. It does not mentioned his name at all. However, the VES Project independent research initiative unearthed his life story from the debris of time.  In the US, his life story was as well unknown.

In Venezuela, professor Johannes von Gozdava Gschwendtner played a very important role as a teacher of physics and hydrology, and as the founder of one engineering department at UCV. Up until now, these facts and his work on Venezuela hydrology have not been widely acknowledged.

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(1) TATE, James (1997) Ode to Oder: A Personal Remembrance, Lion’s Voice, (1997, February 14: 1-4) , last accessed 12/3/2013.

(2) ALVAREZ, Roberto J. (1963) Enseñanza actual de la meteorología e hidrología en Venezuela, Boletín de la Academia de Física, Matemáticas y Ciencias Naturales, Año XXIII, Tomo XXIII, No. 64, pp. 41-47.

(3) SILVA LEÓN, Gustavo A. (2000). Historia resumida de la hidrología venezolana, Revista Geográfica Venezolana, 41 (1): 139-166.



José G. Álvarez Cornett (Twiter: @Chegoyo)
Member of COENER, the “Physics and Mathematics for Biomedical Consortium“, and the American Physical Society (APS). Alumni Representative before the School of Physics Council, Faculty of Science, Central University of Venezuela.

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