Recently I have been cataloguing the various papers we have concerning Charlotte Auerbach (known as ‘Lotte’ to her friends), who passed away 20 years ago this year. Mention has already been made on this blog about how Lotte arrived in Britain from Berlin in 1933, having been dismissed from her science teaching post under Hitler’s anti-Semitic legislation. She remained in the Institute of Animal Genetics for the rest of her life, receiving a Personal Chair from the University in 1967 and being made Professor Emeritus in 1969.
Lotte is best known for her work with J.M. Robson on mustard gas mutagenesis (changes to the genetic makeup of an organism, resulting in a mutation). This work was commissioned by the War Office, due to the use of mustard gas as a chemical weapon, and was carried out under strict confidentiality, the results not being made public until 1947. The archival collections we have relating to Auerbach contain some typescript versions of the reports on this work submitted to the Ministry of Supply during 1942 and 1943. These reports detail the effects of mustard gas on the chromosomes, producing various mutations and impairing fertility. The archives also contain photocopies of letters between Auerbach and her mentor, Hermann J. Muller, who had worked at the Institute of Animal Genetics during the late 1930s, and who had a profound effect on Auerbach, encouraging her to switch her attention from classical genetical studies of Drosophila (fruit flies) to mutation studies. The letters, the originals of which are held in the Lilly Library, Indiana University, reveal the mixed emotions Auerbach felt at the time of the mustard gas discoveries. The first letter which mentions the experiment, from November 1940, is cautious: Lotte claims the work ‘may or may not (probably the latter) lead to anything at all’. By February 1941, she complains of the lack of time to work properly due to her duties washing vials and bottles and cleaning out mice cages at the short-staffed Institute, and also for the ‘septic fingers’ and unpleasant rash obtained through handling the dangerous mustard gas. However, her excitement is growing: ‘The substance seems so potent and appears to have so many similarities with X-rays in its action that it seems worth while trying its possible effect on mutation rate.’ In June, she confirmed that ‘Robson was right after all with his hunch about his substance [mustard gas]…[I] am quite excited about it.’ In reply she received a telegram from Muller and his wife: ‘We are thrilled by your major discovery opening great theoretical and practical field.’ Lotte claimed this telegram was her ‘greatest reward.’
Lotte would go on to win the Keith Prize from the Royal Society of Edinburgh for these important findings, which caused a rift with Robson, who believed he had not been given due credit for the work. This was a rift which Auerbach deeply regretted, particularly as she did not particularly believe that her mustard gas work was the most important of her career. She soon abandoned mustard gas and moved onto other chemicals, testing their effects on the microorganism Neurospora and yeast, and making discoveries relating to mosaics, storage and delayed mutations, ‘replicating instabilities’ and ‘specificity’. In a letter from July 1976 addressed to her colleague Mick Callan, Lotte writes:
You are quite right that I have my own ideas about what have been my main contributions to science, and that I should like to be remembered for these and not for the wrong ones…First, I do not think that I should get much credit for having been the first to find an effective chemical mutagen…What I think are my merits are these:- I am terribly thorough…Without being especially fertile in ideas myself, I am very critical of those of others and particularly of the unproved application of fashionable interpretations to one’s data…I have always retained my attitude as a biologist and have never, like many other mutation workers, abandoned the biological approach in favour of a purely chemical one.
Although she never married and had a family of her own, Lotte had a great love of children; writing a children’s book under a pen name and unofficially ‘adopting’ two boys, whom she called her ‘grandsons’. In later life, Lotte’s failing eyesight was a great loss to her, but she took pleasure in listening to audio tapes and receiving visits from her many friends. Lotte’s friend and colleague at the Institute, Geoffrey Beale, wrote her biographical memoir for the Royal Society (published 1995), and the archives also contain numerous letters written to Beale from Lotte’s friends around the world. The amount of heartfelt recollections of Lotte’s forthright, honest and caring personality shows the effect she had on many people. One acquaintance signed off his letter with the words: ‘It is a pity that people like her also have to get old and die; the world could do with them going on forever.’
You can listen to a clip of Charlotte Auerbach talking here: