Obituary: Professor Charlotte Auerbach

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Charlotte Auerbach, geneticist: born Krefeld, Germany 14 May 1899; Lecturer, Institute of Genetics, Edinburgh University 1947-57, Reader 1957-67, Professor of Genetics 1967-69 (Emeritus); FRSE 1949; FRS 1957; died Edinburgh 17 March 1994.

MY FIRST encounter with Lotte Auerbach is indelibly etched on my memory, writes Tam Dalyell. It was in Blacket Place, Edinburgh, the home of CH Waddington FRS, at a party in 1957. Our host, the internationally famous geneticist, turned to a small group of us kilted young people and said, as he turned to his other guests, 'You should meet our latest Fellow of the Royal Society, our very own Madame Curie]' It was not an inappropriate description.

Firmly and without ado Auerbach suggested that we should be marching to Aldermaston, kilts and all - and doing a great deal more to prevent nuclear testing. She explained that she knew, from her work on mutation genetics, that fine sand blown as dust in the wind, subjected to the explosion of atomic weapons, could lead to leukaemia, cancer and other diseases - and reproductive problems. She railed against the test explosions and the idiocy of those who watched them or had to watch them protected only by dark glasses.

Years later, Lord Penney told me that very few people had objected to the tests on medical and environmental grounds at the time. But an exception, he said, was Lotte Auerbach. She was one of the first to warn of the dangers of nuclear radiation. As early as 1956 she published her book Genetics in the Atomic Age.

Invited to apartheid South Africa to lecture, Auerbach at first refused, saying that she had had enough of racial discrimination in Germany. When pressed, she decided to go. She used her authority and scholarship as a geneticist to destroy any notions that her South African audiences may have had about special genetics of race. The end product was her seminal book Heredity (1965). Charlotte Auerbach was a heroine of causes that mattered.