Obituary: Professor Charlotte Auerbach

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The Independent Online
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.

CHARLOTTE AUERBACH was one of the foremost geneticists in Britain. Her work concerned the harmful effects of radiation and chemicals on human beings and other living creatures.

Lotte Auerbach was born in Krefeld, in 1899, and went to school and university in Germany. After graduating, she realised that as a Jewish woman with no private means she had no chance of a university career, and taught at schools in Berlin. But in 1933, after Hitler became Chancellor, new Nazi laws prevented her from continuing teaching and she was advised by her mother to leave Germany.

She came to Britain that year and obtained a position with a minute salary at the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh. The institute was a very lively place, at which a number of refugee scientists from Europe were working. After the Second World War, under CH Waddington, it developed into one of the world's leading departments for research in genetics.

In 1938 the leading American geneticist HJ Muller (winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology) came to Edinburgh for a couple of years. With Muller, Auerbach learnt techniques for studying gene mutation with the fruit flies (Drosophila) which are much used in genetics experiments. In 1940 it was suggested to her by Professor AJ Clark, of the Pharmacology Department in Edinburgh, that she should study the mutagenic effects of mustard gas, especially its effects on the eye. At that time it was expected that mustard gas would be used as a weapon in the war, as it had been in 1914-18. Fortunately it was not.

Auerbach's work on mustard gas was done in collaboration with Dr JM Robson and was brilliantly successful. The results were very striking and showed that many mutations, most having lethal effects, were produced. Such work was considered at the time to be of military importance, and was designated secret. Even the words 'mustard gas' could not be used: it was referred to as 'substance H'.

By this time Muller had left for the United States and Auerbach described her work to him in a series of letters, without mentioning the name of the substance used. But Muller knew what it was, as they had discussed the plans while he was still in Edinburgh. No one else knew about the work until 1946, when permission to publish it was given. This was the most sensational work that Auerbach did, though she herself placed more value on her later, and more fundamental, studies on gene mutation.

Apart from visits abroad on scientific affairs, Auerbach lived in Edinburgh from 1933 until her death. She became a well-known figure among geneticists the world over, and received many honours, including Fellowships of the Royal Societies of Edinburgh (1949) and London (1957). Edinburgh University belatedly made her a professor in 1967. After she became famous she was invited back to Germany to take a senior position there. To this she stated, 'I would rather be a lab girl in Scotland than a professor in Germany.' She wrote many books, both technical and popular, and some were translated. She liked teaching, was popular with the students and is still remembered by many Edinburgh residents for her talks on genetics given to them when they were at school.

Although she never married, Lotte Auerbach had a great love of children. She wrote a book of fairy tales, Adventures of Rosalund, under the pseudonym of Charlotte Austen. After the war she took into her house a German-speaking friend as a companion to her aged mother. This friend had a baby and Lotte helped to care for him. She became an unofficial adopted 'grandmother' to the child, and eventually turned over her house to him when he grew up. She also helped (through Unicef) with the care and schooling of a poor Sicilian boy who later became a professor in an agricultural college in Sicily.

She was an incredibly kind and generous person. During her last years she suffered from an eye defect which made it impossible to read, but she remained mentally active and cheerful until her death.