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Pitt professor receives Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit from German officials

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Adolf Grünbaum, 90, of Point Breeze has been on the faculty at Pitt for more than 50 years and is credited with building a philosophy department that is recognized world wide. A native of Germany, who immigrated to the U.S. at 15 and became a U.S. citizen, he recently received the Commanders cross of the order of merit from the German government for his work fostering international relations.

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Work hard, live long and, sometimes, life comes full circle.

Adolf Grünbaum, 90, of Point Breeze left his home in Cologne, Germany, in 1938 at 15 when his family fled to the United States to escape the growing persecution of Jews under Hitler.

Grünbaum, who became a celebrated philosopher and founder of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for the Philosophy of Science, in coming weeks will return to Germany to accept an honorary doctorate from the University of Cologne.

Busso von Alvensleben, Germany's consul general, came to Pittsburgh to award Grünbaum the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, in recognition of his professional achievements in and commitment to German-American cooperation.

Though Grünbaum may not be well known outside of academic circles, his standing there was cemented when author Jim Holt called him “the foremost thinker about the subtleties of space and time” and “arguably the greatest living philosopher of science.”

“I never would have dreamt in 1938 that this would occur,” Grünbaum said during an interview in his book-lined study.

He recalled being beaten by a gang in the streets of Cologne as a child for the offense of being Jewish and recounted how his parents carefully weighed their decision to flee Nazi Germany.

Aided by relatives, his family settled in South Brooklyn. After earning degrees in philosophy and mathematics at Wesleyan University in 1943, Grünbaum became a U.S. citizen.

He served in the Army from 1944 to 1946, where his fluent German landed the 22-year-old soldier a job interrogating high-ranking Nazis.

Grünbaum returned home and earned his master's degree in physics and doctorate in philosophy from Yale University. He married Thelma Braverman and achieved his dream of becoming a professor at Lehigh University.

In 1960, Pitt officials, hoping to build a world-class philosophy department, lured the young professor with a lifetime appointment as the Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science and a promise to hire the world's leading philosophers if he would recruit them.

Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said Grünbaum rose to the challenge, taking a low-profile program and pushing it “into the international spotlight.”

Along the way, he wrote and lectured here and around the world.

Grünbaum and his wife have a daughter, Barbara. She and her husband, Ron Gregory, have two sons.

His work covers 12 books and hundreds of journal articles on topics that include the philosophy of physics, the theory of scientific rationality, the philosophy of psychiatry and a critique of theism.

“It was quite an adventure,” Grünbaum said. “I've had some brilliant students who've gone on to do wonderful things. I was always hoping I would become a professor even as a boy, because that meant I would have an opportunity to read a lot.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or

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