Charlotte Auerbach


Charlotte Auerbach photograph

Image of Charlotte Auerbach copyright Royal Society

  • BORN 14th May 1899 Krefeld, Germany
  • DIED 17th March 1994 Edinburgh, Scotland
  • WORKED  Krefeld, Germany; Edinburgh, Scotland
  • HONOURS Keith Prize, Royal Society of Edinburgh 1945-47; Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1949; Fellow of the Royal Society 1957;  First woman awarded the Darwin Medal by the Royal Society 1976

    national library of scotland logo

Entry by Catherine Booth

Artistic Connections

Although she never had children of her own, Lotte Auerbach was very fond of children, and wrote a book for them called ‘Adventures with Rosalind’, under the pseudonym, Charlotte Austen. The story tells of a bedridden boy befriended by a child in a picture book, who takes him on all sorts of adventures.

Music was also important in the Auerbach family. Lotte’s grandmother, Arabella, was very musical, and her son, Lotte’s Uncle Max, became a professional pianist. Lotte herself sang in a choir while in Germany until, as a Jew, she was forbidden, and once in Edinburgh, she played the cello with a group of fellow German and Austrian refugees.


Coming Soon!

Title: I’d rather be a lab girl in Scotland
Words by: Charlotte Auerbach and Frances M Lynch
Written in: 2017
For: 5 female voices
Performed by: Frances M Lynch

The music is based on “Hill-ean is ó hug ù” (“The cattle are lowing in the pasture”) collected by Frances Tolmie from Mary Ross on Skye in 1901. It is a song closely associated with Arisaig, Lotte’s favourite holiday destination. Much of the text is taken from her own writings. The piece was created for the Scottish Superwomen of Science Programme at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.


Lotte Auerbach was born into a Jewish family in Germany. She went to school in Berlin, then studied biology in Berlin, Würzburg and Freiburg.

Under the Nazi regime of the 1930s, it was difficult for a Jewish female scientist to progress in her career, and she suffered Anti-Semitism, before being dismissed from her teaching post.

She left the Germany in 1933, and having contacts in Britain, arrived in Edinburgh. She gained her PhD in Edinburgh, at the Institute of Animal Genetics. Awarded DSc degree from Edinburgh University in 1947.


Teacher, Translator and Cleaner

  • Dismissed in 1933 from her secondary school teaching post in Berlin under Hitler’s antisemitic legislation
  • On arriving in Edinburgh, she supported herself by cleaning animal cages, helping with a pig-breeding project, and doing some teaching and translation


  • Lecturer at Edinburgh University, 1947; Professor, 1967
  • Honorary Director of the Medical Research Council Mutagenesis Research Unit, Edinburgh University 1959 – 69

Scientific Achievements

Lotte Auerbach was one of the first scientists to write about the genetic mutations which may be caused by cancer-inducing and other chemical substances. Notable experiments included observations of effects of mustard gas on fruit flies. Results showed genetic changes, which introduced new possibilities for study.  She went on to publish many articles and genetics texts.
Edinburgh University, where she carried out this work, remains one of the largest centres in the UK for research into molecular genetics. Auerbach’s research from the 1940s is still cited frequently by those working in the field today.


Did You Know?
  • Her experiments on mustard gas during the war were carried out on the roof of the pharmacology building. The researchers all suffered burns on their hands. Current health and safety legislation would not have allowed these experiments without stringent controls!
  • She became a naturalised Scot, and adopted a German mother and her son as her family. Watching him grow up and have a family of his own gave her enormous pleasure.
  • Lotte also supported the son of a poor Sicilian family, who grew up to become a professor at an agricultural college
  • She loved visiting Arisaig, a beautiful village on the West Coast of Scotland
An Inspiring Woman