Charlotte Auerbach

Women in STEM
Women in STEM
Charlotte Auerbach

Birth:  May 14, 1899

Death:   March 17, 1994

Specialty: Genetics

Major Contributions:

Considered the “mother” of mutagenesis

Awarded Royal Society’s Darwin Medal in 1977

Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh Fellow, Royal Society

Image Courtesy of Edinbugh Library Special Collections.

Born in Germany to a Jewish family Dr. Charlotte Auerbach was both a teacher and a researcher during her career.

After earning her undergraduate degree in 1924, she became a secondary school teacher but due to the rise of the Nazi party she lost her job in 1933 and was encouraged by her mother to flee the country.  Arriving in Scotland to study at the University of Edinburgh, she faced financial hardships and almost lost her spot as a student.

After completing her doctorate degree in 1935 studying the development of legs in Drosophila, or fruit flies, she was told there were no positions available for her at the school.  She agreed to work as a personal assistant for the head of the Institute for Animal Genetics for a pittance of a salary forcing her to take on side jobs.

But her work in this lab put in her a position for a new study in 1940 as the United Kingdom’s War Office wanted to better understand the effects of Mustard Gas. Auerbach and a research partner were tapped to take part in the project.

The two began exposing fruit flies to the gas to determine if it caused genetic mutations.  In exposing the fruit flies Auerbach was also exposing herself and had burns from the gas. She was eventually warned that she could be causing herself serious injury. After a few months of study, the data consistently showed that mustard gas did indeed cause chromosomal mutations.

Due to the classified nature of the work, Auerbach was unable to publish her findings publicly until 1947. After publication scientists began to share their research on mutations due to other chemicals. The field of mutagenesis, the process by which the genetic information of an organism is changed in a stable manner and passed on as a mutation, was born.  

At this point she was hired as a lecturer at the University where she remained until her retirement in 1969. She wrote seven books on genetics and one children’s book under a pen name and has been honored with many awards including the Darwin medal.

Written by Angela Goad


University of Edinburgh: Charlotte Auerbach

Jewish Women’s Archive: Charlotte Auerbach

Wikipedia: Charlotte Auerbach

Wikipedia: Mutagenesis

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby

See Also:

Wikipedia: Drosophila

The University of Edinburgh

CDC: Facts about Sulfur Mustard