Scharrer, Berta (1906–1995)

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Scharrer, Berta (1906–1995)

German-born American neuroscientist who, with her husband, virtually founded the discipline of neuroendocrinology. Born Berta Vogel in Munich, Germany, on December 1, 1906; died in the Bronx, New York City, on July 23, 1995; daughter of Karl Phillip Vogel and Johanna (Greis) Vogel; married Ernst Albert Scharrer (1906–1965, a scientist), in 1934.

In 1937, two German scientists arrived in the United States as refugees from Nazism, "with $4 each and clear consciences." As gentiles, Berta Scharrer and her husband Ernst Scharrer could have remained in Germany; indeed, their careers there might have thrived in view of the fact that the persecution and expulsion of Jewish faculty members had created many desirable openings in Germany's universities and research centers. But the Scharrers' principles could no longer allow them to stomach the increasing inhumanity of the Third Reich. When they arrived in America, they brought with them an already significant amount of scientific knowledge and experience. By 1937, both had made progress in their investigations into a phenomenon they had discovered in the animal kingdom, the ability of some nerve cells to secrete hormonal substances. Working as a team, the Scharrers made major discoveries in this area, which quickly became the new discipline of neuroendocrinology.

Berta Scharrer was born in Munich in 1906, the daughter of a judge. After earning her doctorate in biology in 1930 from the University of Munich, she took a position as research associate in a psychiatric research institute in that city. Berta married fellow biologist Ernst Albert Scharrer in 1934. In 1928, Ernst had discovered what he termed nerve-gland cells in a fish, making the then startling hypothesis that some nerve cells were as much involved in secreting hormonal substances as were cells of the endocrine system. This idea, namely that neurons had a dual function, was revolutionary, indeed heretical. Up to this time, scientific orthodoxy had argued that either cells secreted hormones, in which case they were endocrine cells, or they conducted electrical impulses, making them nerve cells that were part of the nervous system. To carry out their plan of investigating this phenomenon, the Scharrers divided up the animal kingdom between them: Ernst would specialize on vertebrates; Berta would study the invertebrates.

Their research progressed well, particularly after Ernst was named director of the Edinger Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt am Main. There, as a research associate, Berta made great strides during the next few years, discovering nerve-gland cells in mollusks in 1935, in worms in 1936, and in insects early in 1937. But while their work in the new area of neurosecretion was going well, life in Nazi Germany was becoming unbearable. Even though they were not affected by the regime's racism, the general level of brutality had reached an intolerable level. In 1937, the Scharrers decided to emigrate to the United States, traveling via the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Pacific, and collecting specimens along the way. For the next several years, Ernst held temporary posts at the University of Chicago and New York's Rockefeller Institute.

Berta continued her insect research. At the University of Chicago, she quickly realized that her small laboratory table greatly limited her choice of invertebrate specimens. When a helpful custodian informed her, "We have roaches in the basement, do you want some?," she answered in the affirmative. The Chicago roaches proved to be highly suited for her studies, being small and free for the taking. In 1940, soon after she and her husband arrived in New York City, a further stroke of good fortune took place. In a shipment of South American monkeys to the Rockefeller Institute there were a number of roaches in the bottom of the now-empty crate. These roaches, Leucophaea maderae, would become the subjects of Berta Scharrer's research for the next 55 years. She found them preferable to their American cousins because they were larger and slower, and were live-bearers rather than egg-layers.

Although affected by nepotism rules and other forms of discrimination against women scientists in the academic world, Berta ignored these injustices and concentrated on her research. Even though the two did all their work together as a research team, only her husband received a salary and the title of professor, while she remained an unpaid researcher. In 1955, she finally gained long-overdue recognition for her work when both she and her husband were offered joint positions at the newly created Albert Einstein College of Medicine at New York's Yeshiva University. Now a professor, she taught histology (the microscopic structure of tissues), while continuing an ambitious program investigating insect glands. Using the electron microscope, Berta was able to accomplish some of the earliest detailing of the insect nervous system and especially the neurosecretory system. Together with her husband, in 1963 she published Neuroendocrinology, which was immediately recognized as a basic textbook in the new discipline.

Ernst died in a swimming accident in Florida in 1965 that almost cost Berta her life. Determined to continue the work both had done for so long, she carried out more research over the next decades. Although she officially retired from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1978, she remained an involved scientist. Countless awards and honors came her way over the years, including membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and receipt of the Kraepelin Medal of the Max Planck Institute in Munich in 1978 and of the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1983.

Scharrer remained active to the end of her long, productive life, in July 1995. At the time, there were many tributes. Wrote Aubrey Gorbman and Howard A. Bern:

Berta Scharrer was a noble, generous, kind, and humane person. Integrity and modesty were hallmarks of her character and career. She was always approachable and helpful to others. She is missed not only for her qualities as a scientist and teacher, but also for the beauty of her friendships and outlook.


Florey, Ernst. "The Zoological Station at Naples and the Neuron: Personalities and Encounters in a Unique Institution," in Biological Bulletin. Vol. 168, no. 3. June 1985, pp. 137–152.

Gorbman, Aubrey, and Howard A. Bern. "In Memoriam Berta V. Scharrer (1906–1995)," in General and Comparative Endocrinology. Vol. 101, no. 1. January 1996, pp. 1–2.

Jones, J. Sydney. "Berta Scharrer 1906–1995," in Kristine M. Krapp, ed. Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998, pp. 408–410.

Kass-Simon, G. "Biology Is Destiny," in G. Kass-Simon and Patricia Farnes, eds. Women of Science: Righting the Record. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 215–267.

Martin, Douglas. "Roach Expert, 88, Bids Goodbye to Her Subjects," in The New York Times. February 9, 1995, p. C18.

Oksche, A. "In memoriam Berta Scharrer 1906–1995," in Cell & Tissue Research. Vol. 282, no. 1. October 1995, pp. 1–2.

Satir, Birgit H., and Peter Satir. "Berta Vogel Scharrer (1906–1995)," in Louise Grinstein, Carol Biermann and Rose K. Rose, eds. Women in the Biological Sciences: A Bio-Bibliographic Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 477–489.

Saxon, Wolfgang. "Berta Scharrer, 88, Research Scientist and Roach Expert," in The New York Times Biographical Service. July 1995, p. 1061.

Siebert, Charles. "What the Roaches Told Her," in The New York Times Magazine. December 31, 1995, pp. 26–27.

Stay, B. "Berta Vogel Scharrer (December 1, 1906–July 23, 1995)," in Journal of Insect Physiology. Vol. 41, no. 12. December 1995, pp. 1017–1018.

Wissig, Steven L. "A Tribute to Berta Scharrer," in The Anatomical Record. Vol. 249, no. 1. September 1997, pp. 1–5.

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

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