Deported and forgotten – Leonore Brecher

Jewish women scientists in Vienna

Leonore Rachelle Brecher was a zoologist at the Institute for Experimental Biology in Vienna. She is the author of more than 20 scientific publications. After 1938, she attempted to emigrate, but was not successful. On September 18, 1942, Leonore Brecher was murdered in the extermination camp Maly Trostinec.

Deported and forgotten – Leonore Brecher studied how animals develop colors

Leonore Rachelle Brecher was born in Botoșani, now Romania, on October 14, 1886. After graduating from high school in Iași in 1906, she enrolled at the University of Iași. A year later, she transferred to the University of Czernowitz, where she studied zoology and botany. However, when her parents died, she had to interrupt her studies after just three terms, moving to live with relatives in the Bucovina. In 1913, Leonore Brecher could finally continue her studies with financial support from her family. After the start of World War I, Brecher transferred to the University of Vienna. From August 1915, she worked at the Institute for Experimental Biology with the Institute’s then director, Hans Przibram.

In 1916, Leonore Brecher received her PhD from the University of Vienna, for her dissertation on “The pupal coloration of the cabbage white butterfly”. A year later, she passed the teacher’s examination for secondary schools and then completed the prescribed pedagogical probationary year at the girls’ secondary school in Albertgasse. In 1918, however, Leonore Brecher returned to the Institute for Experimental Biology, where she as “personal assistant” to Hans Przibram. She continued her research into the coloration of butterflies.

Leonore Brecher was interested in the color of butterfly pupae. She asked whether the background, against which a pupa forms, influences which color the pupa takes. She found that pupae that form against a black background are black. But pupae that form in complete darkness are much lighter! Leonore Brecher figured out that black surfaces reflect UV light. This UV light makes the pupae produce a lot of the color pigment melanin. And this gives the pupae their black color!

In 1923, Leonore Brecher wanted to habilitate; in several countries, this “habilitation” opens the road to professorship and is needed to teach independently at the university. Leonore Brecher would have been the first woman scientist in Austria to achieve habilitation. But her request was delayed. In the meantime, from 1923 to 2913, Brecher worked at the Physiological Institute of the University of Rostock, Germany, supported by anInternational Fellowship by the American Association of University Women. Finally, Brecher’s habilitation request was discussed in 1926. By then, she had published more than 20 scientific studies, 15 of them in the leading journals in her field at the time. Although Hans Przibram supported Brecher’s habilitation request, the members of the habilitation committee – led by Othenio Abel, an early and ardent Nazi – rejected the request.

After her habilitation request was rejected, Brecher left for a research stay at the Pathology Institute of the Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Berlin, supported by the “Emergency Foundation for German Sciences”. From 1928 to 1931, Brecher received the Yarton Research Fellowship of Girton College, Cambridge, which allowed her to conduct studies at the Biochemical Institute in Cambridge and at the Zoological Institute in Rostock, Germany. Brecher’s odyssey continued: From 1931 to 1933, she moved to the Christian-Albrechts-University in Kiel, Germany, supported by another stipend from the “Emergency Foundation for German Sciences”.

In July 1933, Brecher again applied for a grant to the “Emergency Foundation”. Her application was rejected. By then, Hitler had come to power in Germany. In September 1933, Brecher lost her lab place in Kiel and returned to Vienna. In November, she resumed working at the Institute for Experimental Biology.

After the union between Austria and Nazi Germany in 1938, the “Anschluss”, Brecher was listed as “non-Aryan” in a list of employees at the Institute. On April 13, 1938, the Institute was temporarily closed. At the re-opening on April 26, Jewish scientists were excluded and barred from entering the Institute.

Leonore Brecher tried to continue her research. The same year, she travelled to Cardiff, Great Britain, as she had received an unpaid research position at the University of Cardiff. But unable to find sponsors for her work or a paid position, she returned to Vienna soon afterwards. Leonore Brecher started teaching at the Jewish School in Kleine Sperlgasse, in Vienna’s second district. Henriette Burchardt and Helene Jacobi, two other scientists who had previously worked at the Institute for Experimental Biology, also taught at the school.

In September 1938, Leonore Brecher had received an affidavit for emigration to the US. But because she was born in Romania, she was ranked in a hopeless position. Efforts to help Brecher emigrate, supported also by the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, failed. On September 14, 1942, Leonore Brecher was deported to the extermination camp Maly Trostinec. She was murdered on the day of her arrival, September 18, 1942.

Today, a street in Vienna’s 12th district is named in honor of Leonore Brecher.

  • Vivarium
  • Plaque remembering the Institute for Experimental Biology.
  • streetsign saying "Vivariumstraße"
  • House at Rembrandtgasse 32
  • Rembrandtgasse
  • School
  • Commemorative plaque

Selected studies

  • Leonore Brecher, Die Puppenfärbungen des Kohlweißlings, Pieris brassicae L, in: Archiv für mikroskopische Anatomie und Entwicklungsmechanik 102, 4 (1924), 501-516, 517-548.
  • Leonore Brecher, Physiko-chemische und chemische Untersuchungen am Raupen- und Puppenblute (Pieris brassicae, Vanessa urticae), in: Zeitschrift für vergleichende Physiologie 2, 6 (1925), 691–713

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