Image of a cell

Berta Scharrer

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For her pioneering contributions to establishing the concept of neurosecretion and the demonstration of the central role of neurosecretion and neuropeptides in the integration of animal function and development.

In 1937, Berta Scharrer and her husband, Ernst, packed four suitcases and, with only four dollars in hand, fled Germany to the United States, leaving behind their family and their research. They were not Jewish, but the rise of Hitler had ostracized their Jewish colleagues and stunted their research. So the Scharrers tricked the Nazis into letting them leave by accepting a year-long fellowship at the University of Chicago.

Berta faced lifelong discrimination as a female scientist, frequently denied title and salary, and once barred from attending seminars at Case Western University until she agreed to make tea for everyone. But she obtained a lab through Ernst, a biologist, and the couple worked in tandem to unravel the communications between the nervous and endocrine systems in animals. Now known as neuroendocrinology, Berta studied invertebrates, namely cockroaches, and demonstrated that the brain secretes blood-borne signals much in the way the endocrine system secretes hormones, debunking prevailing thought that the brain only communicated electrically. After Ernst’s death in 1965, Berta forged ahead on her own, and was one of the first to map out the insect nervous system.

By Lauren Clason