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Charlotte Auerbach (1899 - 1994)

A Jewish-German zoologist and geneticist who fled Nazism in Germany to pursue her PhD in genetics at the University of Edinburgh.

 Charlotte Auerbach
Photo credit: The Royal Society of Edinburgh

Born on 14 May 1899 in Krefeld, West Germany, Charlotte (‘Lotte’ to her friends) was one of the leading geneticists of her generation whose work focused on the effects of radiation and chemicals on humans and animals.

Substance H

After Auerbach completed her PhD at the Institute of Animal Genetics at Edinburgh, she stayed on to research the effects of mustard gas finding that it caused mutations, often lethal, in fruit flies.

Auerbach never mentioned the substance by name, especially in written communications about her research, and permission to publish details of it wasn’t given until 1946.

The military themselves referred to mustard gas simply as “Substance H” and although its use was heavily debated as a weapon of chemical warfare in WW2, fortunately it was never used.

Keeping it in the family

Auerbach came from a family of scientists: her father was a chemist, her uncle a physicist, and her grandfather an anatomist.

A career as a secondary school biology teacher was cut short due to the rise of Nazism and, due to her Jewish heritage, she was forced to stop teaching in Germany altogether.

New beginnings

When the crush of the Nazi regime became too much, Charlotte was persuaded by her mother to leave Germany in 1933. She moved to the UK to continue her studies and, whilst completing her PhD at Edinburgh, worked with a number of other refugees escaping Hitler’s rule in Europe.

She stayed connected to the University of Edinburgh for her whole career, becoming a lecturer in 1947, Professor of Genetics in 1967 and Professor Emeritus in 1969. She remained in Edinburgh from 1933 until her death on 17th March 1994.

Charlotte Auerbach

Worth remembering

Auerbach had many interests aside from her scientific work. She strongly opposed apartheid, supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and wrote a children’s fairy story book titled Adventures with Rosalind.

She has recently been remembered by the University with Charlotte Auerbach Road, part of the King’s Buildings road renaming project that celebrates the achievement of eminent scientists and engineers associated with the University of Edinburgh.

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