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Safe Haven

Paul Weindling explores Britain's role supporting refugee biologists escaping war and persecution

The Biologist Vol 61(6) p24-27

Between 1933 and 1945, the UK took in numerous biologists displaced by Nazism, Italian fascism and the Second World War. While stellar biochemists such as Hans Krebs and Max Perutz are rightly celebrated, a diverse spectrum of other refugee biologists settled in the UK, from field naturalists to molecular biologists[1].

Support from British scientists was crucial. The Society for Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL) was founded in 1933 (originally as the Academic Assistance Council) in response to the first wave of dismissals by the Nazis[1]. Now known as the Council for At Risk Academics (CARA), the SPSL took a key mediating role for biologists as well as physical scientists and other academics. Supporters included J B S Haldane at University College London; Dr Julian Huxley at King's College London and academics at London Zoo, who were hospitable in training a younger generation of specialised research workers.

The SPSL assisted refugees with entry to the UK, finding laboratory space and – for some – getting onward visas to the US. When it came to internment, the SPSL and physiologist and Nobel laureate A V Hill secured scientists' release or, as with Perutz, repatriation from Canada. Academic refugees also had a vigorous parliamentary voice through Hill, who was not only the Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, but MP for Cambridge University. He helped make the case that the refugees' expertise could assist the war effort.

The SPSL helped displaced academics adapt to their new homeland by offering grants to cover living expenses, interceding with the Home Office and putting individual refugees in touch with British academics. Often the first step was for them to complete a second PhD, which served both to confirm scientific competence and to socialise the researcher. Remarkably, SPSL funds for the refugees' living expenses primarily came from academics at UK universities[1].

On the move

By looking at refugees in the UK who held (or would hold) qualifications in the life sciences and medicine, you get an idea of the variety of this scientific influx. The UK brought in a total of 5,426, according to our best estimates. Most were medically qualified, and most settled permanently or moved to other locations such as the US.

The largest group – 1,163 – were from Germany. There were 1,109 from Poland, 758 from Austria, 524 from Czechoslovakia, and only 30 from Italy and 16 from Spain. The nationalities of the remaining refugees are still to be clarified. Those in the biological sciences numbered at least 170.

Additionally, there were many in medicine who had, or once had, a serious interest in biological research. A certain Sigmund Freud, who arrived in the UK in 1938, had studied the nervous system of the crayfish. Clinician Edward Elkan's first love was natural history and zoology, and after emigration from Hamburg and requalification in Scotland, he eventually he developed a pregnancy test based on tests with Xenopi.

There was committed support within the UK's scientific community for academic refugees both in terms of extricating colleagues from where they were in peril and in finding suitable laboratories. Others saw that refugees had valuable skills in such fields as biochemistry and genetics, and could contribute to skills shortages, as well as expand the scope of science in fields such as nutrition and pharmaceuticals.

There were, however, some antagonistic groups, such as an association of British chemists who demanded that British scientific jobs be restricted to UK nationals.

Case study: Fabius Gross 1906–1950

Austrian Fabius Gross was an assistant in biology under Max Hartmann at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology in Berlin. His interests were in manipulating egg cells, and studying variability of the sexuality and chromosome numbers of newts and other amphibians.

Huxley gave him hospitality at King's College London, and Gross then moved to the marine biological laboratory at Plymouth. There, he became interested in how to increase fish stocks by adding nitrate to the water.

He was then taken on by Francis Crew in Edinburgh and continued to experiment with nitrates and their effect on fish populations. His research was successful in helping to meet the wartime food requirement of Britain.

In 1948, he was appointed professor of marine studies at Bangor. Gross died of leukaemia in 1950 aged 44, tragically cutting short his career.

Young and old

By April 1933, the Nazis had dismissed all Jewish academics and doctors. Students were in a precarious situation, subjected to violence from Nazi student associations and only rarely able to complete their studies.

The refugees spanned generations. Some were older, such as Hugo Merton, born in 1879 and a former deputy director of the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt. After his release from Dachau concentration camp, Merton researched with the geneticist Francis Crew at Edinburgh until he died in 1940 as a result of injuries sustained in the camp.

A younger generation came via Kindertransport – the rescue movement of 10,000 children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia, without their parents, to safety in Britain – and then studied in the UK.

Leslie Baruch Brent, who straddled zoology and immunology, was one of these children, as was physiologist Otto Hutter. At first, Ursula Mittwoch could not afford to study full time: she took employment at the John Innes Horticultural Institution while studying for a BSc in the evenings, and then embarked on a PhD at University College London, where she focused on the genetics of sex differentiation, completing this in 1950.

Biologists at ward

In June 1940, the Dunkirk evacuation and the fear of invasion brought the crisis of internment – where civilians who were deemed to pose a threat to Britain were imprisoned in camps without trial, mainly on the Isle of Man. Among those interned were Fabius Gross and Ludwig Auber, a specialist on bird feather growth from Vienna.

Not every foreign scientist was interned, but Max Perutz's vivid description of being rounded up as an "enemy alien" in his book I Wish I'd Made You Angry Earlier shows how the process was a chaotic panic measure. Perutz notes the ingenuity of the internees and their insatiable scientific curiosity[5]. Milian Pflug, for example, discovered how to obtain a rubbery substance from seaweed, using samples collected from the Isle of Man shore and analysed with self-made chemicals6.

Welcome contributions

Biochemistry and genetics were the disciplines in demand, with opportunities in medicine, nutrition and pharmacology. British research scientists such as Hill saw how the refugees could take a role in transforming the scientific basis of British medicine, and here biologists and pharmacologists (the latter supported by Henry Dale as Royal Society President from 1940 to 1945) also played a part[2]. At least 43 biochemists came to the UK.

It was only once in Britain that Hans Krebs could devote himself full time to biochemistry. In his clinical appointment at Freiburg in Germany, he had daily clinical rounds and diagnostic tests to complete before working on his research. His discovery of the urea cycle earned him international recognition, and a choice of openings in Oxford and Cambridge. The SPSL supported the completion of his PhD at Cambridge, and he progressed rapidly to a readership at Sheffield and a Nobel Prize. Austrian-born molecular biologist Max Perutz also completed a PhD at Cambridge and also received a Nobel Prize for his studies of haemoglobin.

Krebs was keen to develop the careers of scientifically trained women, and at least 12 female refugee biochemists can be identified. Francis Crew, for instance, offered the Austrian Regine Kapeller-Adler a post at the department of animal genetics at Edinburgh University because of the medical relevance of her research on metabolism in toxaemia (pre-eclampsia) during pregnancy. Meanwhile, Regina Schoental, from Kraków in Poland, spent the war at Oxford's Nuffield Institute of Medical Research researching the toxicology of cancer, and discovered the carcinogenic effects of coal tar[3].

For some refugees, the UK offered an intermediate place of safety and a springboard to a career in the Americas. After three years at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, plant geneticist Friedrich Brieger took a post in Brazil. Gottfried Fraenkel, a former Rockefeller Foundation Fellow at Naples and SPSL grantee, successfully researching insect behaviour and insect hormones, moved to the United States in 1948. Vladimir Tchernavin, a Russian marine biologist who escaped the Gulags and along with his wife and child reached Finland, found a niche as an ichthyologist at the Natural History Museum[4] after support from the SPSL.

As mentioned earlier, Julian Huxley at King's College supported a number of refugees, especially those whose research could link developmental biology with genetics.

Huxley also favoured some rather unconventional scientists. He facilitated contacts to have recordings of the animal sound expert Ludwig Koch published and for Koch to broadcast for the BBC in 1940. He enabled sexologist and palm reader Charlotte Wolff to take ape handprints at London Zoo to compare with those of humans for her psychological studies. He also commissioned émigré architect Berthold Lubetkin to design London Zoo's modernist penguin pool. Huxley had an eye for the creative individual whether in the laboratory, field studies or modernist culture.

Huxley had co-authored the anti-Nazi tract We Europeans with anthropologist A C Haddon and demographer Carr Saunders in 1935. He supported the endeavours of Ignaz Zollschan, a veteran campaigner against racism in biology, by writing a preface to the tract Racialism Against Civilisation in 1942. Zollschan attacked "the Nazi theory of race" as a monolithic construct by an inhumane state dedicated to the destruction of civilised values. Zollschan argued that racism was a shared enemy to all religious, moral and liberal political values. Zollschan's ideas were taken up after the war in the UNESCO declaration on race.

Rich pickings

The refugee influx was hugely varied in its makeup. There was a strong core of refugees in biochemistry and genetics, building capacity in British life sciences and medical research. Zollschan, meanwhile, attained a real impact at a time when combating selectionism and racism were priorities, while Fabius Gross (see case study, opposite) was more of a mainstream geneticist, whose career developed because marine biology was economically relevant.

Other, less conventional scientists also found their place in the British life sciences. Walter Finkler, for example, who hadn't had much success as as a transplant scientist, found his niche in food technology at a time of post-war austerity.

This successful integration of refugee life scientists showed that even when political and economic factors were paramount, they adapted science and culture to meet new challenges in their adopted homeland. The SPSL provided invaluable support to the immense gain of UK life sciences. It will be interesting to see how CARA's current flock of refugees will also enrich UK life science.


1. Weindling, P. From Refugee Assistance to Freedom of Learning: the Strategic Vision of A. V. Hill, in In Defence of Learning. The Plight, Persecution, and Placement of Academic Refugees, 1933-1980s (Eds Marks, S., Weindling, P. and Wintour, L.), 59-76 (Oxford University Press for The British Academy, Oxford, 2011).

2. Weindling, P. Medical Refugees and the Modernisation of Twentieth-century British Medicine, Social History of Medicine. 22(3), 489-511 (2009).

3. Travis, A. S. A woman in biochemistry and toxicology: the Polish-British refugee Regina Schoental, Bull Hist Chem. 34, 92-104 (2009).

4. Tchernavin, V. V. I Speak for the Silent Prisoners of the Soviets (Half Cushman & Flint, London, 1934).

5. Perutz, M. Enemy Alien, Perutz, I Wish I'd Made You Angry Earlier, 73–106 (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1998).

6. Royal Society 93 HO 9.7.11 Pflug to Dale 30 March 1943.


Further Reading

Ferry, G. Max Perutz and the Secret of Life (Chatto & Windus, London, 2007).

Marks, S., Weindling, P. and Wintour, L. In Defence of Learning: The Plight, Persecution and Placement of Academic Refugees 1933-1980s (Oxford University Press for the British Academy, Oxford, 2011).

Seabrook, J. The Refugee and the Fortress, 2nd edition (Palgrave, London, 2013).

Weindling, P. (Ed), Special Issue on Medical Refugees in the UK and the Wider World, Social History of Medicine, 22(3) (2009).

Paul Weindling is Wellcome Trust research professor in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. His research ranges from eugenics to medical refugees. He has been a Trustee of CARA since 2003.

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