Skip to main content

Auerbach, Charlotte, 1899-1994 (professor of genetics at the University of Edinburgh)


Charlotte Auerbach was born into a learned artistic and scientific Jewish family in Krefeld am Rhein on 14 May 1899. She went to school in Berlin, and when one biology teacher spent an hour teaching the non-curricular topics of chromosomes and mitosis, Auerbach, aged 14, experienced 'one of the few great spiritual experiences of [her] school life.'
In 1919, beginning her university studies, Auerbach was at first unsure of what subject to pursue. Following the advice of her father to sample many different lectures before settling on a topic, Auerbach soon settled on biology, chemistry and physics after being inspired by lectures in biology. As was the norm in Germany at that time, Auerbach moved around various universities, studying at Berlin, Wurtzburg and Freiburg. She wrote her thesis on thermoregulation, and for it she read widely in all the languages she knew, including Italian, Spanish, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. Being convinced that she could never be an outstanding scientist, and aware of the anti-Semitism rife in the German university sector, Auerbach decided to become a teacher, passing the exam for secondary school teachers in science with distinction in 1924. However, Auerbach was to experience anti-Jewish prejudice over the next nine years of her teaching experience, and also from Otto Mangold, under whom she studied Developmental Physiology in 1928-1929.
In April 1933, following the passing of the anti-Semitic law by Hitler, she was dismissed from her teaching post and not even allowed to collect her books and papers. On the advice of her mother, Auerbach fled Nazi Germany for Britain in 1933, where a family friend put her in touch with G. Barger, Professor of Chemistry in relation to Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Barger was able to introduce Auerbach to F.A.E Crew, then Director of the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh. After some initial bureaucratic issues, Auerbach joined the Institute as a PhD student, where she was to remain for the rest of her life. Crew's laissez-faire supervisory methods were different from those to which Auerbach was used: she was given reprints of papers on Drosophila and asked to pick her research topic. As Auerbach had not previously done any genetical work, she decided to choose a developmental study on the legs of Drosophila, teaching herself genetics with the help of her colleagues. She obtained her PhD in 1935, but as employment was scarce, her future looked undecided. She prevailed on Barger again to persuade Crew to retain her as a personal assistant, although her work was ill-paid and entailed such chores as cleaning animal cages. Despite the hardships, Auerbach enjoyed the lively atmosphere of Crew's Institute, which attracted scientists of many nationalities - many of them fellow refugees - working in diverse fields, as well as eminent individuals such as Julian Huxley, J.B.S Haldane and later Nobel Laureate Hermann J. Muller, who was at the Institute in 1938-1940. Muller was to have a profound effect on Auerbach's life, introducing her to mutagenetics, a field for which Auerbach was to forge her scientific reputation. With Crew's help, she obtained her British naturalisation papers in 1939, which enabled her to remain in Edinburgh and complete what would be probably the most important scientific work of her life.
In 1940, Professor A.J Clark was under contract with the Chemical Defence Establishment of the War Office to study the biological effects of mustard gas on human cells. For this work he summoned Auerbach, Pio Koller and J.M Robson, who had already completed some work on mustard gas as a mutagen. Auerbach and Robson were placed together to study gene mutations in Drosophila that had been exposed to mustard gas, working in conditions which would now be seen as dangerously uncontrolled. Notable results were produced almost immediately the mutation tests began in April 1941, with Auerbach noting that 'treatment interferes with the orderly process of cell division.' By March 1942, Robson and Auerbach were able to prove without doubt that mustard gas was mutagenic, but, due to the confidential nature of the work during wartime, the findings could not be published until 1946 after permission was granted from the government. In 1948, Auerbach received the Keith Prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, an event which alienated her from Robson, who believed he had not received due credit for their work.
Auerbach was awarded the DSc from the University of Edinburgh in 1947. In the same year, Conrad Hal Waddington was appointed to the Buchanan Chair of Genetics and also head of the genetics section of the newly formed National Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organisation (NABGRO, later ABRO), based within the Institute of Animal Genetics. Auerbach was appointed a Lecturer (later Reader) in the Department, where she was a popular teacher. In 1959, the Medical Research Council established the Unit of Mutagenesis Research and appointed Auerbach as Honorary Director. In the twenty years between her work with Robson and her retirement, Auerbach continued to approach mutagenesis from a biological angle, refusing to follow the advice of her colleagues to work from a chemical perspective. She abandoned mustard gas, working instead with other mutagenic chemicals such as formaldehyde, and continuing to use Drosophila, as well as mice. During the 1950s her attentions also turned towards micro-organisms such as Neurospora and the fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe.
In 1967, Auerbach received a Personal Chair by the University. She became Professor Emeritus following her retirement in 1969. Auerbach's research can be seen as having four main areas of concern: work with 'mosaics', a combination of mutant and non-mutant cells sometimes produced by mutagensis; storage and delayed effects of chemical mutagens; 'replicating instabilities' (mosaics which produce more mosaics in later generations), and 'specificity' (parts of the gene that are affected differently by mutagenesis).

Lotte was profoundly independent as a scientist, and compassionate as a person: she supported CND, loathed racism, and adored children, even publishing a book of fairy stories for children in 1947 under a pseudonym. She died in a care home in Edinburgh on 17 March 1994.
1935: Awarded Ph.D., University of Edinburgh; 1947: Awarded D.Sc., University of Edinburgh; 1949: Elected Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh; 1957: Elected Fellow, Royal Society 1959: Became Honorary Director of Unit of Mutagenesis Research, University of Edinburgh; 1967: Appointed Personal Chair, University of Edinburgh; 1969: Appointed Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh; 1977: Awarded Darwin Medal, Royal Society.
Notable publications: 91 published scientific works including: Genetics in the Atomic Age, (1956) Mutation, (1962) The Science of Genetics, (1962) Mutation Research: Problems, Results and Perspectives, (1976).

Found in 18 Collections and/or Records:

Biographical Information on Institute Staff, c.1930-1933

 File — Box: EUA-A-65, Box: data_value_missing_61ada11aba2f2046ddd5e67ed247d4aa, Box: data_value_missing_e70d76e9a08956b45b77104a63785c8a
Identifier: EUA IN1/ACU/A1/5/4
Scope and Contents Contains: bound typescript with handwritten annotations, titled 'Animal Breeding Research Department: List of Publications 1920-' (c.1930); typescript titled 'C.H Waddington - Publications 1929-1975'; photocopied typescript titled 'Publications of C.H Waddington 1963-1975'; typescript titled 'Publications of A. Robertson' (1949-1988); items of...
Dates: c.1930-1933

Biographical material relating to Charlotte Auerbach, 1993-2002

Identifier: Coll-1255/7/12
Scope and Contents Contains correspondence with various individuals concerning biographical details relating to Auerbach, a draft typescript of a longer version of Beale's Royal Society memoir of Auerbach as well as a copy of the printed piece, and Beale's chapter on Auerbach and Robson's discovery of mustard gas.
Dates: 1993-2002

Cassette tape labelled 'Ginsburg. Discussion with G. Beale about Auerbach and Robson (c.1994?)', 1994

Identifier: Coll-1266/4/7/6
Scope and Contents From the Sub-Fonds: Consists of papers collated by Geoffrey Beale as part of the preparation of his biographical memoir of Charlotte Auerbach for the Royal Society, published in 1995. Contains: Correspondence regarding Beale's research about Auerbach, papers concerning Auerbach's family history, copies of Auerbach's obituaries, letters from colleagues to Beale concerning Auerbach and a copy of the Royal Society memoir itself;Cassette tapes of interview recordings made of Charlotte Auerbach by Geoffrey Beale;Copies...
Dates: 1994

Correspondence regarding general Epigenetics Research Group matters, 1962-1972

Identifier: Coll-41/8/7/8
Scope and Contents Contains a letter from Edward Appleton to the MRC accepting the Council's offer of financial support for the Research Group (30 May 1962); correspondence concerning Charlotte Auerbach and the Mutagenesis Unit; and correspondence concerning the building of and alterations to the Epigenetics Building (1967-1972).
Dates: 1962-1972

Correspondence with Klaus Heckmann, 1963-1999

Identifier: Coll-1255/2/8
Scope and Contents Correspondence chiefly concerns arrangements for Heckmann's visit to Edinburgh in 1964, Beale's visits to Germany, his role as an academic referee for Heckmann and Heckmann's assistance in Beale's research for Charlotte Auerbach's biographical memoir. Also contains a copy of Heckmann's retirement speech from the University of Münster (in German) and several offprints of Heckmann's papers.

Heckmann's replies to Beale are in German.
Dates: 1963-1999

Faculty of Science Minute Book, 1963-1966

Identifier: GB 0237 EUA IN1/ACA/SCI/1/21
Scope and Contents Includes letters and reports, covering subjects such as courses, students, research grants and appointments. Those present at meetings included Michael Meredith Swann, Sir Edmund Langley Hirst, Tom L Cottrell, Hermann Brück, Charlotte Auerbach and W Ewart J Farvis,
Dates: 1963-1966

Faculty of Science Minute Book, 1963-1966

Identifier: GB 0237 EUA IN1/ACA/SCI/1/22
Scope and Contents Includes letters and reports, covering subjects such as courses, students, research grants and appointments. Those present at meetings included Frederick Henry Stewart, Sir Edmund Langley Hirst, Charlotte Auerbach, Tom L Cottrell, Hermann Brück and W Ewart J Farvis.
Dates: 1963-1966

File of biographical information about Charlotte Auerbach, F.A.E. Crew and Arthur Jurand, gathered for a display in the Ashworth Building, 1969-2000

 File — Box: EUA-A-524, Box: data_value_missing_2a5f1ef3ee021c671f67aae5c3d86e5e, Box: data_value_missing_3a3a1420da009f215f96cb8387c2427d
Identifier: EUA IN1/ACU/A1/9/4
Scope and Contents Contains: order of service for Charlotte Auerbach's funeral, an obituary and a detailed CV written by Auerbach; Crew's Royal Society memoir, photocopies of correspondence between Crew and the University regarding his appointment to, and retirement from, the Chair of Public Health and Social Medicine; an order of service for Arthur Jurand's funeral together with photocopied material relating to his experience in concentration camps during the Second World War; one page of handwritten notes...
Dates: 1969-2000

Folder of Hermann J. Muller offprints, initialled by Charlotte Auerbach, 1952-1966

Identifier: Coll-1255/12/1/18
Scope and Contents Contains a mix of reprinted articles and typed copies of articles from other publications, chiefly on subjects such as radiation, the future of man and the role of science in society.
Dates: 1952-1966