Obituary: Pioneering Neuroscientist Berta Vogel Scharrer Dies

Berta Vogel Scharrer, who, with her late husband, Ernst Scharrer, is considered a pioneer in the field of neuroendocrinology--the study of the interaction between the nervous and endocrine systems--died of natural causes at her home in the Bronx on July 23.

Karen Young Kreeger
Sep 3, 1995

Berta Vogel Scharrer, who, with her late husband, Ernst Scharrer, is considered a pioneer in the field of neuroendocrinology--the study of the interaction between the nervous and endocrine systems--died of natural causes at her home in the Bronx on July 23. She was 88 years old. Scharrer, a distinguished professor, emerita, of anatomy and structural biology and of neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, was a founding member of the college in 1955 and conducted research there until a few months ago. 

MUCH MISSED:Colleagues fondly remember Einstein's Berta Scharrer.

We're all going to miss her," says Jesse Roth, Scharrer's former student and a member of the college's first class of medical students. Roth is now the Raymond and Anna Lublin Professor of Medicine and director of the division of geriatric medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Berta Scharrer is best known for her...

In 1928, Ernst Scharrer, while a Ph.D. student at the University of Munich, discovered nerve cells in the brain of fish that he hypothesized secreted hormones, a revolutionary idea at the time. The scientific dogma then was that cells could either conduct electrical impulses or secrete hormones, not both.

Two years later, in 1930, Berta Scharrer received her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Munich. She studied in the lab of Karl von Frisch, the bee behaviorist who won a Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology in 1973.

To hunt for neurosecretory cells--or nerve-gland cells, as Ernst Scharrer termed them--within the animal kingdom, the Scharrers divided the work. She took invertebrates and he took vertebrates. Throughout the 1930s, Berta Scharrer, working as a research associate at the Neurological Institute of the University of Frankfurt, discovered nerve-gland cells in many invertebrate species.

Though not Jewish, the Scharrers left Germany in 1937 for the United States because of the Nazi policies against their Jewish colleagues. Roth recalls a story about their life in wartime Germany: "Berta described that they often came to work with briefcases in both hands so they wouldn't have to give the `heil Hitler' business."

As a woman scientist in the 1930s and 1940s, Berta Scharrer did not have an easy path. During several years of Ernst Scharrer's fellowships throughout the U.S., Berta conducted her research without pay, although the Scharrers were equal research partners. It was not until they arrived at Einstein, when it opened in 1955, that Berta Scharrer was offered a paid professorship in the anatomy department. Ernst Scharrer was the department's first chairman.

By the 1950s, the neurosecretion hypothesis was more readily accepted by the scientific establishment, becoming the linchpin of the new field of neuroendocrinology. Together the Scharrers published in 1963 what is considered to be the seminal text in the field, Neuroendocrinology (B.V. Scharrer and E.A. Scharrer, Columbia University Press).

After her husband died in a swimming accident in 1965, Berta Scharrer became chairwoman of Einstein's anatomy department for two years. Her later research concentrated on elucidating the relationship between the immune and nervous systems in invertebrates. Satir calls her move into neuroimmunology "a remarkable transition."

In the last two decades she has been widely recognized in the U.S. and Europe for her scientific contributions: She received the National Medal of Science in 1985; was awarded several honorary degrees, including degrees from Harvard Medical School and Northwestern University; and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1967.

-Karen Young Kreeger

(The Scientist, Vol:9, #17, pg. 17, September 4, 1995)

(Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)


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