Advancing Epigenetics Towards Systems Biology

Paula Hertwig

A radiant intellect

Name: Paula Julie Elisabeth Hertwig
Nationality: German
Lived: 1889-1983
Fields: Genetics and radiation
Claim to fame: Pioneer in the field of radiation genetics

German geneticist Paula Hertwig (1889-1983) came from a scientifically talented family. An insightful researcher and a respected teacher, she spent her long career carrying out pioneering work into the effects of radiation on embryonic development and raising awareness of her results among doctors.

In the genes

Paula Hertwig was born in 1889 in Berlin. Her father, Oscar Hertwig, was a renowned anatomist and biologist, and her uncle, Richard Hertwig, is known as the founder of experimental zoology. Together, they developed the germ-layer theory which proposes that all organs and tissues are based on three basic tissue layers. Her brother Günther was also a biologist.
Paula‘s father encouraged her interest in evolutionary biology and genetics from an early age. She studied zoology, botany and chemistry at the Friedrich Wilhelms University (now Humboldt University) in Berlin, and became the first woman to gain a postdoctoral degree (‘habilitation‘) allowing her to apply for a professorship at her university. However, her decision to embark on a career in research came at a price: at that time, German law stipulated that female employees in state institutions who married had to give up their position. Paula remained single throughout her life.

Sibling alliances

Paula‘s older brother Günther studied medicine at university and, like his sister, pursued a career in research. They were extremely close and lived and worked together for much of their lives; in 1946, he accepted a professorship and the two moved to Martin Luther University of Halle in East Germany.
By the time she retired, Paula was a recognised expert in radiation genetics. Crucially, she was one of the first people to identify the damaging effects of radiation, in particular on the offspring of those exposed to radiation. After the death of her beloved brother in 1970, Paula moved to Villingen in southern West Germany, where she died on 31 March 1983.

Embryonic ideas

Paula‘s passion was investigating the effect of radiation on eggs and sperm and on embryonic development. During her early career, she worked closely with her father at the Anatomical-Biological Institute in Berlin, and was awarded her doctorate from Friedrich Wilhelms University (FWU) in Berlin in 1916. Until then, no woman had been granted a ‘habilitation‘ from the university; a 1908 law excluded women from holding university faculty positions.
However, Paula had a strong ally in her mentor, the zoologist Karl Heider, who had a positive attitude towards women in science and worked hard to allow their admittance to the faculty. In a letter to the dean of the university in 1919, he argued his wider case for the habilitation of women, and described Paula as ready for the step. “I consider her to be knowledgeable, thoughtful, with good critical skills and the ability to express herself clearly,” he wrote.
In November of the same year, Paula was granted her habilitation, which allowed her to apply for an academic post. She was the first woman to do so, and one of only four before the 1908 ban was repealed in 1920. But she was allowed to apply only in principle; no woman scientist was to become a full professor in Germany until the 1950s.

A talented teacher

In 1921, Paula moved to the heredity and husbandry department of the Agricultural College and was given the title of assistant. She also lectured at FWU teaching heredity as part of the medical faculty between 1927 and 1945, having been granted the unpensioned position of ‘unofficial, extraordinary professor‘. Her strong teaching skills and ability to explain complex issues in a simple way soon won her the admiration of her colleagues. When the agricultural college was incorporated into the university faculty in 1935, she was paid as an assistant for its Institute for Heredity.
Throughout this period, Paula continued to investigate the effects of radiation in living creatures. In the course of her experiments on mice, she isolated mutant strains that would go on to serve as models of human ear, nose, throat and eye diseases.
Paula‘s research was vital in demonstrating the link between radiation of the genital area and health problems in the offspring. With the help of the German Society for Heredity Research, she worked hard to communicate her findings to the medical community. Yet despite Paula‘s ongoing scientific achievements and hard-earned qualification, many were reluctant to grant her a full professorship.

Brother and sister team

After World War II, Paula and her brother applied for jobs jointly; Günther would only accept academic appointments on the condition that his sister be given a post at the same institution. In 1946, he accepted a professorship and they moved to Martin Luther University of Halle (Saale), where Paula became the first female professor in the medical faculty. In 1948 she was elected dean of the faculty, making her the first woman to hold the post. She continued her work on the effects of radiation on mice and taught courses in biology and heredity to medical students. In 1953, her contribution to our understanding of radiation genetics was recognised when she was elected a member of the prestigious Germany Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.

Scientific achievements

Today, Paula Hertwig is recognised as a pioneer in the field of radiation biology who helped to warn the medical establishment about the damaging effects of radiation. Her contribution to the field is recognised in the Paula and Richard Hertwig Prize, which is named after her and her uncle. Granted annually by the Union of the Friends and Supporters of the Helmholtz Centre in Munich, it rewards researchers whose work spans two different fields. A hereditary disease, Hertwig-Weyers Syndrome, is also named in part after her.