Auerbach, Charlotte (1899–1994)

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Auerbach, Charlotte (1899–1994)

German-born Scottish geneticist whose studies on the effects of radiation on mutation of genes are universally recognized. Name variations: Lotte Auerbach. Born on March 17, 1899, in Krefeld, Germany; died on March 17, 1994, in Scotland; achieved doctorate in genetics from the University of Edinburgh in 1935; never married; children: adopted a German girl and her baby boy.

Left Nazi Germany to escape persecution (1933); completed doctorate in genetics from University of Edinburgh (1935); became a laboratory technician despite her qualifications, slowly working her way up the career ladder; appointed lecturer (1947) and reader (1958); researched the mutagenic action of chemicals, which resulted in many publications, including several books for general audiences, like Genetics in the Atomic Age (1956) and The Science of Genetics (1962); awarded the D.Sc. from Edinburgh (1947); elected to a Royal Society of Edinburgh fellowship (1949); became a fellow of the Royal Society of London (1957); a foreign associate member of the Royal Danish Academy of Science (1968); foreign associate member of the United States National Academy of Sciences (1970); received honorary degrees from Leiden, Dublin, and Cambridge Universities; received the Darwin Medal of London's Royal Society (1976).

Charlotte Auerbach was born into an affluent and respected Jewish academic family on March 17, 1899, in Krefeld, Germany. Her father was a physical chemist and her grandfather a distinguished anatomist who had discovered "Auerbach's plexus" in the human intestine. Auerbach studied physics, chemistry and biology at the Universities of Berlin, Würzburg and Freiburg. A brilliant student, she was also opinionated, and a disagreement with her doctoral advisor at the University of Berlin resulted in her dropping out of the program without having been granted her degree. A number of seemingly condemning factors—including the fact that her family no longer had money and that she was a Jewish woman—forced her to conclude that even with a Ph.D. she stood little chance of achieving academic success. So she took a job as a secondary-school teacher in Berlin, continuing to read avidly in the sciences, particularly in the field of genetics and biology.

When the Nazis seized power in 1933, she immigrated to Scotland. With the help of friends, she survived on extremely meager resources, taking advantage of her newfound freedom to finally earn a Ph.D. In 1935, she was awarded a doctoral degree in genetics from the University of Edinburgh. Lotte, as she was known to her close friends, continued to live in Edinburgh with her mother, who had also been able to flee Nazi Germany. Despite her obvious intellectual gifts, Auerbach was only able to find a low-paying, vaguely defined job at the University of Edinburgh's Institute of Animal Genetics that included such chores as washing of laboratory glassware. She became a British citizen in 1939.

Throughout the war years, Auerbach kept working at her menial job, but the course of her career had been set a few years earlier when she met the American Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Hermann J. Muller in Edinburgh. Muller, who had discovered the mutational genetic impact of ionizing radiation, advised her to study the nature and causes of these complex mutational changes. He became her lifelong mentor, persuading Auerbach to thoroughly investigate the mutagenic action of chemicals. In a fruitful collaborative partnership with the pharmacologist J.M. Robson, Auerbach was able to demonstrate in unambiguous terms the highly mutagenic nature of mustard gas. This research, deemed sensitive in wartime by British authorities, did not appear in print until 1946. Although she was no longer young after the war, much of Auerbach's most important research was accomplished during this period. Painstaking and innovative, she compared the mutagenic effects of alkylating agents and ionizing radiation in the fruitfly. It was not until 1947 that she finally received an academic appointment as a lecturer. She was 58 when she became a reader and 67 when she received a chaired professor-ship as an internationally recognized researcher. As the importance of her work became more widely known, her international stature grew.

Known as an impassioned communicator to generations of Edinburgh science students, evidently Auerbach was more proficient at lecturing than carrying out demonstrations. One group of her students watched mice—brought in to demonstrate the genetics of mouse coat colors—get the better of her and escape. Convinced that students needed to be inspired at an early stage in their learning experience, she wrote a series of popular accounts in the 1950s, which include Genetics in the Atomic Age (first published in 1956, revised edition 1965) and The Science of Genetics (first published in 1962, revised edition 1969). Advancing years did little to stifle her enthusiasm or the quality of her work, and she continued throughout the 1960s at the MRC Mutagenesis Research Unit in Edinburgh. With a dedicated staff and enthusiastic students, Auerbach and her team unraveled the myriad mysteries found in the process of cellular mutation.

She received many honors and awards. In 1947, Auerbach was awarded the D.Sc. from Edinburgh and elected to a Royal Society of Edinburgh fellowship in 1949. She became a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1957, a foreign associate member of the Royal Danish Academy of Science in 1968, and a foreign associate member of the United States Academy of Science in 1970. She received honorary degrees from Leiden, Dublin and Cambridge Universities. In 1976, she was given the Darwin Medal of London's Royal Society.

Auerbach loved Scotland and some of her happiest times were spent walking with friends in the West Highlands, admiring the scenery. She never married, but she acquired an adopted family just before the death of her mother in 1955 when she befriended a German girl and her baby boy, assisting in the child's upbringing. The boy eventually married and had children of whom Lotte was immensely proud. To these children, she was simply "Gran." Charlotte Auerbach died on March 17, 1994.


"Professor Charlotte Auerbach," in The Times [London]. April 9, 1994, p. 21.

The Year Book of the Royal Society of London 1977. London: The Royal Society, 1977.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Auerbach, Charlotte (1899–1994)

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