‘Lotte’: Charlotte Auerbach (1899-1994)

Charlotte Auerbach outside the Institute of Animal Genetics building, King's Buildings, Edinburgh. Date and photographer unknown.

Charlotte Auerbach, date and photographer unknown. (Coll-1266)

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:

Clare Button
Project Archivist

10 thoughts on “‘Lotte’: Charlotte Auerbach (1899-1994)

  1. i was the junior in Lotte’s MRC Unit from 1960 to 1965. She treated us all as her family, had wonderful parties and encouraged everyone to continue studying. She visited my husband and myself in Canberra in 1967. Later when she was losing her sight I was able to introduce her to Rolin Hotchkiss, whom I had worked for in New York. It was such a thrill for me to introduce them. Rolin arranged for Lotte’s to fly to New York to visit eye specialists there trying to save her sight. Whenever I was back in Edinburgh I would visit Lotte and read to her or we simply had tea and listened to music. She was a very special person who mentored me as young lassie. I am so very lucky to have been in her Unit it opened so many doors for me all over the world.

    • Dear Isobel,
      Many thanks for your heartfelt message and warm memories of Lotte. It’s great to hear about the important influence she had on so many minds. We have a collection of oral history interviews with her here which make fascinating listening – we hope to make these available online in the near future. Since this blog post was published we have also received some of her lab books and a 1930s-model microscope into the archives! Thanks again and best wishes, Clare (Project Archivist)

  2. Dear Clare – I was so hoping to hear Lotte’s voice but the link doesn’t work. I’ve been working with National Library of Scotland to bring her work to the fore alongside that of other Scottish Female Scientists – and there is a page about her here http://superwomenofscience.co.uk/scientists/charlotte-auerbach/ – which I hope to add some music to at some time. I’d love to hear about what she listened to herself and if there was someone who would like to be interviewed about her that would be amazing – we use audio interviews as part of our live performances of the work we create about these women
    Frances M Lynch

    • Thank you for your interest Frances – I will amend the link. I have also sent you an email in case you want to discuss your interesting project further. All the best, Clare Button (Project Archivist).

    • Dear Francis, what a fascinating project and I do hope it all comes together. I am sure you know all the people who worked with Lotte in her MRC unit so I don’t think I would be giving you any new news were I to list them.
      I eventually gave up working in labs and did a Hisory degree in WA, Australia, thanks in no small part to the encouragement I received from Lotte. She used to make all the researchers slow their experimental work down during my exams and get them to tutor me!
      Good luck and I shall look forward to hearing how it all goes. I am often in Edinburgh visiting so is there anyplace I can go to see the papers?
      Cheers, as we say Downunder, Isobel

    • Dear Francis, Lotte loved classical music and gave my husband and I a classical record as a week g present. If you are going to be around in late June early July this year I shall be in Edinburgh for a week or so and would be happy to bring interviewed about a woman who was my mentor and a joy to have worked under.

  3. Dear Clare,
    Thank you so much for a wonderful article and for the splendid work that you have done in collecting and cataloguing ‘Lotties’ work for the National Library of Scotland, ‘Scottish Female Scientists’ exhibition, which I attended and which made me very proud – as I am one of the ‘grandsons’ whom Lottie unofficially ‘adopted’.
    I write this to you as I sit at the old oak desk at whch Lotte also sat and at which she did so much of her work – and the desk and I both sit in the wonderful old house that Lotte left to me on her death.
    Lottie did not bring me up to be a scientist, but rather, I followed a career in stage and theatre technology. The only nod to science was that as a small boy, I would earn my pocket money by donning an oversized lab coat and alongside Lottie’s colleagues in the lab, help by separating the male from the female Drosophila – one had a red rear, the other a black! I was also employed to put up the blackboard for when Lottie’s students came to her house for monthly meetings and I would trot amongst them and offer nibbles and refreshments!
    I have such happy memories of a truly good woman and of a great ‘Scottish’ scientist – for she thought of herself as Scottish – and on her passing, I scattered her ashes on a tiny island at Arisaig, her favourite place in the world, in the country which welcomed her with open arms and which she called home.
    Mike Avern

    • Dear Mike,

      Thank you so much for your kind comments, it is great to hear from you about your connection with Lottie. I will be in touch separately by email.

      All the best,


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