Frans, Ton and Jan Nijhuis Frans, Ton and Jan Nijhuis Sacha Ruland

“We were adults in miniature”

Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 05 February 2014 15:14

The three gowns – two red ones from Maastricht University and a black one from the University of Amsterdam – are lugged along in grocery bags for the photo session. It’s not often that three brothers, born into a middle-class family, all become professors. “True. But you might do better to ask why only three of the seven of us became professors”, jokes the oldest of the three. Gynaecologist Jan Nijhuis (UM), psychologist Frans Nijhuis (UM) and cultural scientist Ton Nijhuis (now UvA, but formerly of UM) talk about injustice, courage and long hair.

 

A unavoidable fixture in the lives of the Nijhuis family, and thus also for young Frans, Jan and Ton, was ‘the business’. The Eibergse Bazar, their parents’ brainchild, was a luxury brand for household items, toys, leather goods and more. At 15, Ton did the bookkeeping, and 11-year-old Jan ran the Christmas cards department. “Buying, selling, stamps; I was responsible for all of it, and every evening Father would ask how much I’d sold”, says Jan. “Another brother was in charge of the fireworks department. We were all adults in miniature. The business was everything, and for us that hasn’t changed. Your work is everything.”

Mother Nijhuis

The store employees were a common sight around the house, and often ate with the family. Their mother taught them not to judge. “A mason can make straight walls; I can’t”, says Jan, the gynaecologist. While their father had the innovative, entrepreneurial spirit, ‘Mother Nijhuis’ was a beacon of intelligence and tolerance. He couldn’t stand the boys’ long hair; she convinced him to let them work in the store regardless. She was a walking encyclopaedia and a safe haven, accepting everyone just as they were. In their free time, the family read widely and had constant debates. “Sometimes they got quite heated,” says Frans, “but it never led to conflicts.”

Baby

The ‘adults in miniature’ largely raised one another. Ton was the baby of the family, taught to walk by his brothers and taken along to the pub from an early age. “He carried a lot on his shoulders, because he was pushed into work very young”, says Jan. “But as soon as he got started in discussions at the bar, he’d suck me in with this vast, detailed knowledge about anything and everything.” Ton’s brothers still call him the smartest. With three cum laude degrees (political science, history and philosophy) and a cum laude PhD, they may be right. Partly thanks to the household debates, Ton initially opted to study political science. Jan, fascinated from childhood by the GP’s waiting room, was always going to choose medicine. As for Frans, he doesn’t dare say why he plumped for psychology. In any event, he was the first to join Maastricht University, as a work and organisational psychologist, in 1980. Ton followed four years later, starting out at what was then the Faculty of General Studies. He was tasked with studying whether “someone should do something with history … It seemed like a good idea to me, and in the end I was able to spend two years figuring out exactly what.” The result was the programme Science and Culture Studies, the predecessor of today’s Arts and Culture degree. It was Frans who had alerted Ton to the vacancy, but otherwise there was no connection between their appointments in Maastricht.

Today, Ton and Frans still see at UM the pioneering spirit they encountered early on in their Maastricht careers. Or, as Jan puts it: “Maastricht has guts. Guts to keep on making progress, and not to sit back and think the work is done.” “Because it’s so young and remote, UM has had to prove itself again and again”, Ton adds. “But that’s what keeps it vibrant and growing; that and the fact that it’s always attracting new student groups. This is what makes it different from an established university in the Randstad.”

Impact factor

Ton left Maastricht for Amsterdam in 1999. Around the same time Jan, then working as a gynaecologist at the St Radboud Hospital in Nijmegen, got a call inviting him to become a professor at UM. “I saw it as a great new opportunity.” Although Frans and Jan both defended their PhDs in 1984, and Jan and Ton both gave their inaugural lectures in 2000, the three view these events as independent. “We didn’t push one another into academic careers”, says Frans, and adds, laughing, “We’ve never compared impact factors.” Jan explains: “Only later, when all three of us got involved with management and the like, did our career paths start to converge. And when my eldest son defended his PhD two years ago, we three were all together in the corona, which was of course a lot of fun.”

Passion

All three are passionate and enthusiastic about their work, which has no doubt contributed to their academic success. Frans is the listener, according to his brothers; something that also becomes clear during the interview. “He’s the psychologist, after all”, they joke. Ton is flamboyant, but a thinker: his comments during the interview are all measured and well considered. Jan, his brothers say, is a born organiser with a strong radar for injustice. He relays an anecdote about how, as a 10-year-old, he reported his teacher to the police for child abuse. “We weren’t beaten ourselves, because we were the Nijhuis boys, but I thought some of the other kids were hit far too hard and too often. I couldn’t bear it; it had to stop.” His parents were not in the loop. “Mother bumped into the teacher at church and heard that I’d turned him into the police. After I explained why, she said: You did the right thing, but next time it’d be nice if you could tell me too.”

Their father died young; Mother Nijhuis survived to see Frans and Jans defend their PhDs and Frans give his inaugural lecture. Two other brothers took over the Eibergse Bazar until they retired, its closure marking the end of an era.

 
Frans Nijhuis (1949) has been endowed professor of Inclusive Labour Organisation (the Atlant chair) at UM since 2010. Previously he was endowed professor of Psychology of Labour and Health (1994–2010).

Jan Nijhuis (1952) has been professor of Obstetrics at UM since 1999 and is head of the MUMC+ Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Ton Nijhuis (1958) has been professor of German Studies at the University of Amsterdam since 1999 and scientific director of Amsterdam’s Germany Institute since 2002.

 

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