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Auerbach, Charlotte [Lotte]locked

(1899–1994)
  • Brian J. Kilbey

Auerbach, Charlotte [Lotte] (1899–1994), geneticist, was born on 14 May 1899 at Krefeld, Germany, the only child of Friedrich (Fritz) Auerbach (1870–1925), public health chemist in Berlin, and his wife, Selma, née Sachs (d. 1955), daughter of a general practitioner from Jauer. The Auerbach family was Jewish and its antecedents had lived in the vicinity of Breslau for about 200 years. Lotte was educated at the Auguste-Viktoria Schule in Berlin-Charlottenburg, and it was there that her interest in biology was kindled by an unscheduled lesson on chromosomes and mitosis. This was fostered first by her father's own enthusiasm and subsequently at university, where she heard lectures by K. Heider and Max Hartmann and 'saw the field of biology opening up' before her (Beale, 23). She attended the universities of Würzburg, Berlin, and Freiburg, obtaining her Staatsexamen in biology, chemistry, and physics in 1924. At first she was doubtful whether she had the originality and independence of thought to become a good scientist and decided to become a secondary school teacher. This was not a happy period in her life. Antisemitism was already becoming apparent among her colleagues and, in 1928, with the help of a small legacy, she left teaching to embark on postgraduate work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Biologie with Otto Mangold. Her project was not entirely to her liking but she was not allowed to change it. 'You are my student', she was told, 'you will do as I say. What you think is of no importance!' (Beale, 24). Unwilling to compromise on such an important matter she left to return to teaching, but this was not a success. She found keeping order in class exhausting and it may have been a blessing in disguise when, in 1933, along with other Jewish teachers, she was summarily dismissed and had once again to evaluate her future. With the help of family friends in London and Edinburgh she left Germany and joined the University of Edinburgh, completing her PhD at the Institute of Animal Genetics in 1935.

Auerbach's early years in Edinburgh were difficult. Money was scarce and employment was almost casual but she stayed on in the institute, then the foremost animal genetics establishment in Britain, helping with experiments where she could, washing glassware, teaching herself genetics, and meeting several visiting scientists of note. One of these, who was to prove pivotal in her later career, was Hermann Joseph Müller, the co-discoverer with Stadler of the mutagenic effects of ionizing radiation and later a Nobel laureate. Müller took time to discuss her scientific interests with her and convinced her that to understand the nature of the gene she should study mutation and what caused it.

In 1939, two weeks before the outbreak of war, Lotte's mother escaped from Germany and went to Edinburgh. At this time, too, Lotte's naturalization papers arrived—in the same post as the demand that she register as an alien. They had very little money and life was very hard for the two women but this was probably the most important period of her life. At Müller's suggestion she used his elegant tests for genetic damage in the fruit fly, Drosophila, to test three carcinogens. All three gave negative results but then, at the suggestion of Professor Alfred Joseph Clark and Dr John M. Robson in Edinburgh, she turned to the study of mustard gas. They had noticed that mustard gas skin lesions, like X-ray burns, were very slow to heal and tended to recur, and they speculated that mustard gas also caused genetic damage. Flies were exposed to mustard gas on the roof of the pharmacology building in Edinburgh and taken to the Institute of Animal Genetics for analysis. In April 1941 Lotte wrote to Müller in the United States, 'Robson was right … about his substance. I got heaps of lethals [mutations] and am much excited' (Beale, 28). The substance was not named for security reasons but Müller knew perfectly well what she was testing and cabled on 21 June, 'We are thrilled by your major discovery opening up great theoretical and practical field. Congratulations you and Robson. H. J. and Thea Müller'. Because of the security blanket these results could not be published until after the war, but this meant that Auerbach was able to make thorough studies of the genetic effects of alkylating chemicals in Drosophila and make careful comparisons between their action and that of ionizing radiation.

These results were released to the scientific community in 1946 and Auerbach's status as a scientist was established. Subsequently she became a lecturer (in 1947) and later a reader (in 1957) at the institute. In 1947 she received the degree of DSc from the University of Edinburgh and the Keith prize from the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She was elected a fellow of that society in 1949 and of the Royal Society in 1957. International honours followed and, belatedly, she received a personal chair in 1967 from Edinburgh, two years before her retirement. During this period she published several popular genetics texts which were translated into many languages. She travelled and lectured extensively. She was made the honorary director of the new Medical Research Council mutagenesis research unit in Edinburgh from 1959 to 1969, switching from Drosophila to micro-organisms. This change in experimental system did not signal a change in interest. She saw micro-organisms as a better means of studying some of the more intractable problems uncovered in Drosophila such as delayed mutation and her so-called replicating instabilities. Her conviction remained that mutagenesis was a biological process; she was never convinced that it would be accounted for solely in terms of the reaction between mutagen and DNA.

Auerbach was described by her colleague Geoffrey Beale as 'a very unconventional and independent, though always polite, person' (Beale, 35). She held strong convictions on a number of political issues. She was one of the first scientists to warn of the dangers of nuclear radiation, publishing Genetics in the Atomic Age in 1956 and supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from its inception. She was equally firm in her opposition to apartheid, agreeing to visit South Africa to lecture on genetics only after being assured that members of all races would be allowed to attend her lectures, and using her authority to discredit any notion that black people were genetically inferior to white. She had, she declared, had more than enough of racial discrimination in pre-war Germany. She never married, although she adopted a boy who, with his mother, lived with her until she moved to sheltered housing. She had close friends in all parts of the globe whom she enjoyed visiting and was much loved by those who worked with her. She died peacefully at the Abbeyfield Home, Polwarth Terrace, Edinburgh, on 17 March 1994. She was cremated six days later at Mortonhall crematorium, Edinburgh. In accordance with her wishes her ashes were scattered at Rhu, near Arisaig, on the west coast of Scotland, where she had spent many happy holidays with friends.

Sources

  • G. H. Beale, Memoirs FRS, 41 (1995), 21–42
  • B. J. Kilbey, ‘In memoriam Charlotte Auerbach, FRS (1899–1994)’, Mutation Research, 327 (1995), 1–4
  • B. J. Kilbey, ‘Charlotte Auerbach (1899–1994)’, Genetics, 141 (1995), 1–5
  • The Independent (21 March 1994)
  • The Times (9 April 1994)
  • WWW, 1991–5
  • TNA: PRO, HO 334/158/AZ 16078

Likenesses

  • photograph, repro. in The Independent
  • photograph, repro. in The Times
  • photographs, repro. in Beale, Memoirs FRS, 20, 30, 31

Wealth at Death

£180,296.58: confirmation, 28 June 1994, NA Scot., SC/CO 766/133

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society
(1920–)