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Bean Speech* 2016


* Bean Speech (Bohnenrede) is a speech traditionally given at a luncheon or dinner held each year on Immanuel Kant’s birthday. The name “bean speech” derives from the method of choosing the speaker for the following year. Whoever finds a silver bean hidden in a cake served as dessert is hailed as the “Bohnenkönig“ or “Bohnenkönigin” respectively (Bean King or Bean Queen) and given the honor of presenting the speech the following year.


William Motherby - Founder of the Friends of Kant Society
Marianne Motherby

The meal we share today on Immanuel Kant’s birthday dates back to an initiative by my great-great-great-grandfather, William Motherby. Who was this man?

William Motherby (1832)

This portrait by the German miniature painter August Grahl (1791 - 1868) shows William when he was about 55 years old. We will come back to this portrait later.

William was the son of Robert Motherby (1736 - 1801), who emigrated from England (Kingston upon Hull), and his wife Charlotte (1742 - 1794), who came from a Huguenot family. William’s father came to Königsberg as a young man at the invitation of an English merchant, Joseph Green (1727 - 1786). Joseph Green, nine years older than Robert and a bachelor with no children, operated a successful trading company in Königsberg. He wanted Robert Motherby to become his partner and ultimately his successor.

Joseph Green and Robert Motherby became close friends with Immanuel Kant. Their friendship began around the time that William’s parents Robert and Charlotte (née Toussaint) were married. The wedding was held in 1762, and Immanuel Kant and Robert Motherby were already friends by no later than 1763 (as documented by the engraving on a champagne glass). The friendship between Immanuel Kant and Robert Motherby lasted for almost 40 years (until Robert’s death in 1801). The friendship between Kant and Robert’s son William was also long-lasting, and continued for 28 years (until Kant’s death in 1804).

Kant was a frequent guest in Robert and Charlotte Motherby’s home, and was practically one of the family. His regular Sunday visits nurtured the great intimacy between him and the Motherby children. He played and joked with them, and they in turn were very fond of him.

Kant's student and biographer R. B. Jachmann described Kant at the Motherby home in his book "Immanuel Kant as seen through letters to a friend" in the sixth letter as follows:

“Even in old age, the great man's affectionate behavior toward very young children always made his appearance a delight. It was a joy to see how this world-renowned sage, who was never able to lower himself to the use of childish terms, was nevertheless moved by his loving demeanor to attempt childlike speech and jokes. In the house of his and my noble friend Motherby, with whose family Kant had affiliated himself in a paternal cast of mind, I often had the opportunity to observe him in these relations. He never appeared to me more gracious and amiable than here, where he lived like an elder parent, as it were, among his children’s children.”

William was born in Königsberg on December 9, 1776. Like his siblings, he grew up multilingual and was equally comfortable speaking German, English, and French. William enjoyed a free-spirited upbringing in which Kant played a significant role. It was always clear, however, that duty must take precedence over enjoyment. There is a nice story about this: As a reward for particularly hard work and obedience, young William had received permission from his father to take a river trip to Pillau with his friend Leo. While they were onboard the boat, the captain suggested that the two boys extend their trip to Danzig. The boys then conscientiously wrote home to request their parents’ consent to lengthening the journey. Leo was successful with his plea, whereas William received strict instructions from his father Robert to return home immediately. Without a murmur, William then immediately packed up his bundle and headed back. His father first received him rather coolly, but this quickly changed when he noticed that his son showed no resentment about the paternal decision. Soon thereafter, being very happy with his son’s sense of responsibility, strong character, and self-control, Robert sent William on a pleasure trip to Lithuania as a reward.

William's capacity to constantly maintain good humor in difficult situations was a lifelong character trait. Even when suffering from extreme pain, he never lost his cheerfulness (he suffered from kidney stones or gallstones for many years; the records speak of “pain from stones,” which took him to the edge of the grave several times).

His relationship with his childhood friend Leo was shattered many years later, however, (around 1822) when William lost a large portion of his wealth, a loss for which Leo was responsible.

The education of his friend Robert Motherby's children was a matter very close to Kant’s heart. He therefore saw to it that from the age of 6 to 13, William was sent to the Philantropinum, a school in Dessau highly esteemed by Kant for its progressive teaching methods.

Whether Kant influenced William’s decision to become a physician is unknown. William’s uncle, George Motherby (1731 – 1793), the brother of his father Robert, presumably played some role in the decision to study medicine. George Motherby was a respected physician who practiced in Highgate (Middlesex). He had studied at the University of Aberdeen and published “A New Medical Dictionary” in 1775 (best remembered as the first medical dictionary to include the term “placebo” and for containing illustrations). George Motherby made his name in Königsberg by introducing a smallpox vaccination technique (variolation) in 1770. George appears to have visited Königsberg frequently, but there are no other details available in this regard. He died in 1793, three years before William completed his medical studies in Edinburgh at the age of 20. William became a respected physician in Königsberg, although not everyone appreciated his approach. William had a quick mind but very little patience. He did not like to hear long descriptions of problems and had the unpleasant habit of abruptly cutting his patients short. He never did this in a hurtful way, however, and his cheerfulness was said to have a healing effect. William’s house calls were always a joy, not only for his patients, but also for the entire family, thanks to the self-confidence that he radiated and his addictive lightheartedness. Like his uncle George Motherby, William promoted smallpox vaccination in Königsberg with great enthusiasm (although he used a different medical technique). Another important field of his medical activities was a psychiatric clinic. The improvement of prevailing conditions there was of great concern to him.

The fact that William enjoyed extraordinary respect as a highly educated man of his time in Königsberg is due not least to the influence of Immanuel Kant. William’s circle of friends included many well-known people of the day. In addition to Kant, he was friends with Wilhelm v. Humboldt, Baron vom Stein, the author Ernst Moritz Arndt, and the astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, to name only a few.

Christian Friedrich Reusch, the son of Kant’s dining companion and physics professor Karl Daniel Reusch, wrote in 1847 in his work “Kant and his Dining Companions”: 

“William was extremely talented and beloved, with a sparkling and apt wit. He appeared to have inherited his love of etymology from Kant. His liveliness and quick grasp of all subjects made him popular in every social gathering, and he was often at the center of conversation.”

William’s father Robert died in 1801. This was a particularly heavy blow for Kant because he had already lost many friends and was particularly close to Robert. William visited Kant every one or two weeks until Kant's death. He always felt very close to his father’s friend and knew how much he had to thank him for. It is therefore no surprise when William founded the Friends of Kant Society the year after Immanuel Kant's death.

One year after founding this society, William, who had since turned 30, married Johanna Tillheim (1783 - 1842), who was seven years his junior. They had two children: Anna, born in 1807, and Robert, born in 1808.

As the daughter of a Königsberg tradesman, Johanna came from a rather modest background. According to her biographer, Heinrich Meisner, she had a “lively and cheerful way about her” and a “pleasing manner in speech and movement.” Meisner further writes that:

“In the first years of their marriage, William was extremely busy with his practice and his work for the city, which was probably why the couple grew apart. In April 1809, Humboldt came to Königsberg as a member of the Privy Council and head of the Department for Culture and Education. He quickly became a welcome guest in the home of William Motherby, with whom he shared a reverence for Kant’s philosophy and  Pestalozzi's pedagogy. The friendship with William Motherby was soon joined by a deep affection for Johanna. Following his departure from Königsberg, there was a lively and passionate exchange of letters between the two, which was broken off only in 1813, when Ernst Moritz Arndt entered Johanna’s life.”

At that time, William and Johanna Motherby's house was the center of social life in Königsberg. This was also due in large part to Johanna, whose charm, warmth, empathy, enthusiasm, genuineness, and gentility were very highly appreciated.

The author, historian, freedom fighter, and later member of the Frankfurt National Assembly Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769 –1860) was a childhood friend of William Motherby. In early January 1813, Arndt arrived in Königsberg from St. Petersburg for a few weeks in the company of Baron vom Stein (an advisor to Czar Alexander I in 1812), for whom he acted as private secretary. A few weeks later, he followed Stein to Dresden (Arndt’s duties as private secretary to Baron vom Stein primarily involved correspondence with England and Germany, particularly concerning the Russian-German Legion and a coalition between England and Russia. During this period, Arndt published the majority of his patriotic songs and poems and his anti-French writings).

In his book “My Travels and Saunterings with Baron Heinrich Karl Friedrich vom Stein,” Arndt writes about his stay at the Motherby home in early 1813:

“At my friend Motherby's house, I experienced similar, but much more youthful and lively evenings than at Dohna’s and Schrötter’s. This was a noble and free-spirited urban home, steeped in the English and Kantian spirit.”

During the few weeks of Arndt's stay in Königsberg, a passionate platonic relationship developed between him and Johanna Motherby, which – like Johanna’s relationship with Wilhelm v. Humboldt – is documented in numerous letters. The close friendship between Ernst Moritz Arndt and Johanna continued until her death (1842), and also lived on with Johanna and William’s daughter Anna, with Arndt becoming the godfather for her first child.

The marriage between William and Johanna had been dysfunctional for some time when Johanna met a medical student nine years her junior, Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach (1792 – 1847), in 1814. He was a friend of William and a frequent guest in the Motherby home. He fell passionately in love with Johanna, who returned his affections. Official investigations concerning “demagogic machinations” (the founding of a republican fraternity) and his love for the wife of a respected Königsberg physician forced the 28-year-old Dieffenbach to leave Königsberg in 1820. Thanks to Johanna’s connections with Wilhelm v. Humboldt, Dieffenbach, who continued to be viewed as politically unreliable, was able to take the state examination in Berlin in 1823 and to establish himself there as a physician. His practice thrived. He treated patients from throughout the world – both prominent members of society and the poor – and became a highly respected medical pioneer in transplants as well as plastic surgery at the Charité University Hospital.

Johanna and William were divorced in 1824. Johanna and Johann Christian Dieffenbach married in the same year. Dieffenbach wrote to a friend at the time: 

“My wife is not young, not pretty, and not rich; but precisely because she does not have all these things, you will be all the more convinced that I love her. On the other hand, she possesses an infinite wealth of goodness of heart and a delightful gentility, things that can never be lost.”

The marriage lasted only seven years. Dieffenbach divorced Johanna in 1831 and was remarried in the same year, this time to a woman 27 years younger than Johanna.

A few years after the divorce from Dieffenbach, Johanna led a salon in Berlin with her friend, Countess Elisa von Ahlefeldt (the divorced wife of Free Corps commander Major von Lützow), at which many well-known personalities socialized. 

In the last phase of her life, Johanna once again had a young admirer: Philipp Kaufmann (1802 – 1846), 19 years her junior, a Shakespeare translator and a friend of Liszt. It may be coincidence, or perhaps the influence of Johanna, that inspired Philipp Kaufmann to translate, among other texts, Shakespeare’s play “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a work already attempted by Johanna’s ex-husband William, a life-long Shakespeare admirer.

Johanna died in Berlin in 1842 at the age of 59 after a brief illness.

William Motherby survived Johanna by a few years, although he was plagued by ill health all his life. 

He never remarried and presumably also had no other close relationships with women (he was definitely not a “ladies’ man” – perhaps the Kantian influence?). In the last years of his life, however, he regularly met and played cards with two genteel ladies from a good family, a pastime that he enjoyed just as Kant had in his time. 

Like his father Robert, William was a great lover of nature. He designed his garden with great love and taste, and domesticated the swans in the Schlossteich (Lower Pond).

Beginning in 1832 (the time of the portrait by August Grahl), William left his hometown during the summer months and managed his country estate in Arnsberg in the Prussian Eylau district with enthusiasm and great success (the estate was located near Tharau, approximately 20 km south of Königsberg; its Russian name today is “Pobeda”). William continued to spend the winter months in Königsberg.

The Arnsberg manor house is no longer standing. It apparently burned down in 1946. Only a few foundation stones are still visible in the thickets of the overgrown park.

William completely absorbed himself in his agricultural activities. He won horticultural prizes, became the director of the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture in Prussia, and wrote a number of agricultural essays. In his last years, he authored an anthropological/psychological paper – which he dedicated to Kant – entitled “The Temperaments,” which was published in 1843.

William died in Königsberg on January 16, 1847, aged 70 and with his mental faculties intact.

Motherby Street in Königsberg, now known as Lieutenant Roditeleva Street, was named after him.

William Motherby's friends described him as follows:

French liveliness

openness and extreme love for truth

frivolous and eccentric


quick to convert ideas into actions (sometimes perhaps too quickly and too impetuously)

frequently the intellectual and argumentative superior of his dinner companions, but never hurtful or arrogant

gracious, without being flattering

unsurpassed social talent

literary talent

splendid speaker and conversationalist

William Motherby was a master of spirited, well-mannered, and diverting conversation, and knew the importance of maintaining friendships. Let us now celebrate together, in the spirit of the tradition started by William Motherby!

© 2016 Marianne Motherby

Translation: Terence Coe

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