12 Renowned Scientists Who Were Also Refugees

Mary Cruse
Jun 8, 2018 · 9 min read

“It is only men who are free who create the inventions and intellectual works which to us moderns make life worthwhile.” — Albert Einstein

1. Sigmund Freud

Ah, Sigmund Freud; a man whose name conjures up all sorts of worrying thoughts. But while some of Freud’s theories might have been a bit…out there, his work did fundamentally change psychology and shape our understanding of the human mind.

One group of people who seriously hated Freud and his work were the Nazis. In 1933, they destroyed his books, prompting Freud to quip: “What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now, they are content with burning my books”. But as persecution against Jewish people worsened in Austria, it became clear that Freud and his family were not safe. After months of tortuous waiting, the Freuds secured exit visas and fled to London. In the UK, he was able to continue his work, faithfully recreating his former consulting room, right down to the legendary couch.

2. Albert Einstein

Imagine being so smart that your last name is used as slang for ‘genius’. The OG of science celebrities, Albert Einstein was one of the greatest minds of the 21st century. His greatest hits include: time, space and quantum mechanics — plus the added bonus of the world’s most recognisable equation.

But Einstein’s fruitful career might have been cut short, had he not escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. During a visit to the USA in 1933, Einstein discovered that Adolf Hitler had been elected. A non-observant Ashkenazi Jew, Einstein was unable to return to his professorship at the Berlin Academy of Sciences, and so he renounced his German citizenship and became a refugee. Our hero was granted citizenship in the USA, where he lived out the rest of his days doing what he did best: studying, theorising and revolutionising science.

3. Karl Popper

If we tolerate intolerance, then we risk sacrificing tolerance and bolstering intolerance. No, that’s not a tongue twister; it’s Karl Popper’s famous theory on the paradox of intolerance. In addition to his social and political philosophies, Popper was a prolific philosopher of science whose thinking contributed to the development of the modern scientific method. Popper drew a line between science and pseudo-science by suggesting that theories must be falsifiable (i.e. ‘prove wrong-able’) in order to count as ‘scientific’.

But Popper’s gifts to the world might never had been had he not fled from Austria in 1937. His Jewish background made Popper a target for the Nazis, but thankfully he was able to escape, first to New Zealand and then to the UK. Here, he spent the next 50 years coming up with ideas about truth, knowledge and society, which we’ve all been arguing about ever since.

Courtesy of the British Pharmacological Society

4. Edith Bülbring

Edith Bülbring could have been many things — a doctor, a musician — but she chose to become a scientist, and for that we should all be grateful. Bülbring was an expert in pharmacology who took on the previously overlooked field of smooth muscle physiology. Turns out this type of tissue exists all over our body, and from regulating blood pressure to helping us digest food, it’s pretty darn important.

Bülbring was studying infectious diseases in Berlin when the Nazi’s rose to power. She lost her job after it was made illegal for anyone of Jewish background to hold professional posts. Thankfully, Bülbring and her sisters made it out to Oxford, where she went on to make huge strides in physiology, soon becoming one of the first women elected a Royal Society fellow. Not to say she wouldn’t have made a killer pianist, but we’re glad she went for science instead.

5. Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch

Some people like mice, others…less so; but the mother of developmental genetics really loved mice. Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch was a pioneer of genetics who helped to establish the role of genes in embryonic development. Her decades-long studies of mice helped us better understand human development and developmental disease, earning her many sparkling accolades.

Gluecksohn-Waelsch’s achievements are all the more impressive when considered alongside the dual prejudices she faced as a Jewish woman. After fleeing from Nazi Germany in 1933, she and her husband settled in New York. The two were similarly qualified, but whilst he was offered an academic position, she was not. But she persisted, eventually becoming one of the most influential geneticists of the twentieth century. And Gluecksohn-Waelsch loved her work, speaking to Newsday in 1993, she said: “I love mice…I’m going to drop dead in the mouse room. That is my wish”. Now that’s job satisfaction.

6. Max Perutz

Okay, time to think back to GCSE Biology. Remember haemoglobin — the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body? Well, we have Max Perutz to thank for that knowledge. Amongst other achievements, Perutz was the first to successfully unpick the molecular structure of haemoglobin, eventually figuring out exactly how it works. His research helped us better understand human biology and a whole host of diseases. Nice work Max Perutz.

But Perutz’s road to discovery was not smooth. Born in Austria, Perutz was working in Cambridge when the Nazis annexed Austria. In an act of monumental irony, the UK government shipped him and other Austrian and German citizens (many of them Jewish refugees) to an internment camp in Canada, for fear they might be Nazis. When he was released, things got better for Perutz. He returned to England and to the flourishing new field of molecular biology. He soon went on to make some big-time biological breakthroughs, cementing his place in history once and for all.

Courtesy of the Science History Institute

7. Carl Djerassi

You thought diamonds were a girl’s best friend? Nope; it’s a 20th century scientist named Carl Djerassi. A Bulgarian-American novelist, playwright and chemist, Djerassi played a major role in the development of the oral contraceptive pill. Now that’s a pretty major gift to the world, but Djerassi didn’t stop there. His prolific career spanned steroid research, artificial intelligence and pest control, plus several novels, plays and poems.

Djerassi’s amazing achievements prompted real societal progress, but he came from troubled beginnings. He and his mother were refugees who arrived in the USA without a dime back in 1939, after having escaped from the Nazis in Austria. Thankfully, Djerassi turned things around, ultimately leaving the world a little better than he found it.

8. Dame Stephanie Shirley

Wouldn’t it be cool to be named one of the nation’s most powerful women? Or one of the top practising scientists? How about winning a lifetime achievement award, having an OBE, or a Damehood? Well, Stephane Shirley has done it all and got the T-shirt. Shirley was an early computing pioneer, who founded a software company in 1962 with the capital of £6. Her company went on to employ thousands of people — many of them female, at a time when STEM careers were not readily available to women. Shirley became a giant of information technology, and a notable philanthropist.

In fact, Shirley has given over £67 million to charitable causes. Movingly, in her memoir she writes: “I do it because of my personal history; I need to justify the fact that my life was saved”. You see, Shirley escaped from Nazi Germany at the age of 5, as a Kindertransport child refugee. Luckily for Britain, Shirley became a citizen at the age of 18, going on to transform the country’s computing industry.

9. George Radda

We all know that magnets are cool, but George Radda helped us realise how incredibly useful they can be in healthcare and biology. He used a technique called ‘nuclear magnetic resonance’ (NMR) to study biological processes, and helped set up the first clinical NMR unit in the world — work that contributed to the (now widespread) use of MRI scanning in hospitals. Radda later became head of the UK’s Medical Research Council and is currently an Emeritus Professor at Oxford.

But all of this was preceded by Radda’s experiences as a young Hungarian refugee, smuggled out of the country along the Danube river. Radda was 20 when the Hungarian revolution against the Marxist-Leninist government began, prompting reprisals from the Soviet Union. He and his siblings managed to escape the country, and Radda soon worked his way to the safety of Oxford, where he went on to study chemistry and…well, you know the rest.

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

10. Emmanuel Dongala

Now for a man who tears apart the idea that we can only be ‘arts-y’ or ‘science-y’. Emmanuel Dongala is an esteemed chemist, specialising in stereochemistry, asymmetric synthesis, and environmental toxicology. But Dongala’s achievements extend beyond science. He’s also an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright, and Guggenheim fellow.

In 1997, Dongala was a professor of chemistry and dean of the Republic of Congo’s state university when civil war broke out. Thousands of people were killed in the fighting that followed, but Dongala was one of the lucky ones. His friend, the American author Philip Roth, helped to secure Dongala a place teaching chemistry at Bard College in New York. In the years since, Dongala has achieved much literary success, with his books translated into a dozen languages — putting pay to the idea that we have to choose between the pen and the petri dish.

Courtesy of Monash University

11. San Thang

Polymers are the unsung heroes of materials science. They’re EVERYWHERE, including in the device you’re reading this on. In recent years, polymers have been becoming more advanced, and San Thang is one of the people we should thank for that. He invented RAFT: a tool for creating advanced polymers with interesting properties. RAFT has allowed us to make self-cleaning and scratch proof devices, and next-generation paints, oils and drug delivery systems. Thanks to his transformative invention, Thang has been tipped to win the Nobel prize, so watch this space.

Thang had to overcome enormous barriers to achieve this success. He came to Australia in 1979, after fleeing Vietnam, where his family were persecuted for their Chinese heritage. Thang escaped on a fishing boat, travelling for four days before reaching safety. Years later, in 2015, he would draw on this experience for his perfectly-titled TedX lecture: ‘From Boat to RAFT’.

Originally posted to Flickr as Eric Schmidt, Sergey Brin and Larry Page by Joi Ito

12. Sergey Brin

Not to get all green-eyed about this, but Sergey Brin is the 13th richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $47.2 billion. But forget that, this is about THE SCIENCE. Whether you love it or hate it, Google is incontestably one of the most transformative inventions in modern history. Released in the late-90’s, this search engine has spurred a revolution in the way we access and consume information. But Brin’s not done yet — the 44-year-old computer scientist is working on a whole host of advanced new technology — from augmented reality to driverless cars.

In 2017, at a protest against the US travel ban, Brin commented: “I’m here because I am a refugee”. Brin was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in the midst of the cold war. His Jewish parents made the decision to leave after facing anti-Semitism in their home country, and were assisted by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in moving to the US. Brin went on to attend Stanford University where he met Larry Page, and the rest is computing history.

This World Refugee Day, we’re highlighting how refugees are changing the world for the better; but refugees shouldn’t have to be legends to be considered worthy. Refugees are human beings with ideas, hopes and dreams, just like everyone else.

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Together Science Can

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Mary Cruse

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Writer, journalist, communicator. Covering science and global issues for the Together Science Can campaign. #TogetherScienceCan

Together Science Can

Started by organisations worldwide to celebrate and protect international collaboration. The time is now to speak as one. #TogetherScienceCan