Charlotte Auerbach bigraphy, stories - Geneticist, author

Charlotte Auerbach : biography

14 May 1899 - 17 March 1994

Charlotte Auerbach (14 May 1899 - 17 March 1994), known by her friends as 'Lotte', was a German-Jewish zoologist and geneticist who contributed to founding the science of mutagenesis. She became well known after 1942 when she discovered with A. J. Clark and J. M. Robson that mustard gas could cause mutations in fruit flies. She wrote 91 scientific papers, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh as of the Royal Society of London. In 1977, she was awarded the Royal Society's Darwin Medal. Aside her scientific contributions and love of science, she was remarkable in many other ways, including her wide interests, independence, modesty, and transparent honesty (Beale 1995, Kilbey 1995).

The missing family

Charlotte was the only child of her parents, born into a third-generation Jewish family who had lived for several generations in Breslau. In 1933, at the age of 34, she fled to Scotland because of anti-Semitism. Charlotte Auerbach never married and had no children of her own. However, she loved children and noted to friends that she would have sacrified science for having an own family. She unofficially 'adopted' two boys, one, Michael Avern, was the child of a German-speaking companion to her elderly mother. She helped to upbring Michael and gave him later her house in Edinburgh. The other, Angelo Alecci, came from a poor Sicilian family and the Save the Children Fund connected Charlotte with him (Beale 1995). Also, she took care of her ageing mother. In 1989, at the age of 90, she gave her house in Edinburgh to Michael and moved into the Abbeyfield Home in Grange Loan, Edinburgh, which was run by the church. She died five years later, in 1994.

She may always have felt something missing in her life, felt other people with a family, like her cousin, lead a much richer life. In a letter to her cousin she cites Eduard Mörike "Wolltest mit Freuden mich nicht ueberschuetten, und wolltest mit Leiden mich nicht ueberschuetten" - (You did not want to shower me with joy - and you did not want to shower me with suffering.) She wrote that she missed the feeling to be of personal-beloved importance to some people.


Other interests

Apart from her scientific work she was involved in musical activities. She supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), was a fierce opponent of apartheid, and a confirmed liberal. In 1947, she published a book of fairy stories titled Adventures with Rosalind under the pen-name of Charlotte Austen.

Research in Edinburgh

Auerbach's dissertation was on the development of legs Drosophila (Kilbey 1995). After her dissertation she became a personal assistant to Crew who connected her to the lively group of scientists he had assembled, and to invited scientists including Julian Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane, and most importantly to Lotte, to Hermann Joseph Muller (Kilbey 1995). The famous geneticist and mutation researcher stayed in Edinburgh 1938-1940 and introduced her to mutation research. Initially, she refused to work with Muller, when Crew told her to. Muller however who was present when she opposed her boss, assured her that he would only want to work with people who are interested in the projects. But since she was interested in how genes operate, Muller noted that to understand this it would be important to understand what happens if the genes are mutated - this convinced her (Kilbey 1995). She said herself "His enthusiasm for mutation research was infectious and from that day on I switched to mutation research. I have never regretted it."Auerbach 1978, 319-320.

Early science education - between science teaching and PhD

Charlotte Auerbach may have been influenced by the scientists in her family: her father Friedrich Auerbach was a chemist, her uncle a physicist, and her grandfather the anatomist Leopold Auerbach. She studied Biology and Chemistry at the Universities of Würzburg, Freiburg and Berlin. She was taught and inspired by Karl Haider and Max Hartmann in Berlin, and later in Würzburg by Hans Kniep. After very good examinations in biology, chemistry, and physics, she initially decided to become a secondary-school teacher of science, passing the exams for that, with distinction in 1924. She taught in Heidelberg (1924-1925) and briefly at the University of Frankfurt, from which she was dismissed - probably because she was Jewish. In 1928 she started postgraduate research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology (Berlin-Dahlem) in Developmental Physiology under Otto Mangold. In 1929 she abandoned her work with Mangold: he would later join the Nazi party, and Auerbach found his dictatorial manner unpleasant. In reply to her suggestion to change direction of her project, he replied "You are my student, you do as I say. What you think is of no consequence!" (Kilbey 1995). She again taught biology in several schools in Berlin - until the Nazi party ended this by law since she was Jewish. Following her mother's advice, she left the country in 1933 and fled to Edinburgh in Scotland where she got her PhD in 1935 at the Institute of Animal Genetics in the University of Edinburgh. She would stay affiliated to this Institute throughout her whole career. After being an assistant instructor in animal genetics, she became a lecturer in 1947, Professor of Genetics in 1967 and Professor emeritus in 1969.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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