This article is written in memory of the late Prof. Gerta Vrbová, Emeritus Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at University College, London. Scientist, author, mother and survivor.
Though Gerta’s story not mine to tell, it is one that must be shared. For a far superior and intimate look at the life of this fantastic woman, I recommend her autobiographies, Trust and Deceit; A tale of survival in Slovakia and Hungary, 1939-1945 and Betrayed Generation: Shattered Hopes and Disillusion in Post War Czechoslovakia.
In February 1985, a 26-year-old research assistant and PhD student at UCL was awaiting news from the Home Office concerning her permit to stay and work in the United Kingdom. This young woman, who had moved to England from India four years previously, anxiously confided in her supervisor, Gerta Vrbová.
My mum always tells me that it is what Gerta told her that evening in February that has kept her going through times of difficulty in her personal and professional life. On that February evening, Gerta told mum the story that has made her an inspiration to so many people.
In November of 1926, Gerta was born into a Slovak-Jewish family in Trnava, Slovakia. Her birth took place at a time when anti-Semitic rumblings were festering under the skin of almost every central European society. In 1939, the outbreak of the Second World War sparked the creation of ‘The Committee for the Solution of the Jewish Question’ in the Slovak government, set up to discuss anti-Jewish legislation. Due to this, many Jewish young people were not able to complete formal education. Knowing what she would later achieve, it is hard to believe that Gerta did not have formal schooling after the age of 12. Shortly afterwards, in 1941 the Slovak government negotiated with Nazi Germany for the mass deportation of Jews to camps in German-occupied Poland, with 58,000 deported to Auschwitz concentration camp. Gerta’s family fled to Hungary in 1942, where she, like so many others, was forced to give up her Jewish identity. There, she lived under the false identity of a Catholic girl called Eva Dakacs, while having to learn to speak Hungarian like a native. This in itself is an incredible feat – I have been studying French and German for 7 years and still do not have nearly native level of fluency in either language.
Though this situation was far from ideal, it was nothing compared to what would come. In March 1944, Hungary fell into German occupation. To escape the rounding up and deportation of Jews, the family fled back to Slovakia. Upon their return in 1944, Gerta’s father was caught and sent to a camp, following which Gerta and her mother were captured by the Gestapo and held in a detention house. It was here that everything would change. In an interview with The Mirror in 2014, Gerta recalled that “It was raining hard, so the guards were not outside. I tried to persuade Mum to come [with me] but she had given up. She said she didn’t want to live in a world like this anymore. She told me to go – and so I did. I never saw her or my father again.”  Both of her parents were deported; and neither survived the Holocaust.
After escaping the Gestapo, Gerta managed to escape to Budapest. According to my mum, she would flippantly say that it was her blue eyes and light hair that saved her life, as it meant that she was able to hide in plain sight. While I am sure this fortunate coincidence was valuable, I am in no doubt that much of Gerta’s survival and success was entirely down to her infallible spirit and astounding resourcefulness. Despite seeing her family lose everything, she endured; remaining a firebrand of hope.
Having lived through all of this, it was at this point that Gerta’s work and academic legacy began. Her interview for the Physiological Society in 2013 tells you all you need to know about Gerta the scientist, and her tremendous attitude towards her work . In the space of a decade, Gerta moved to Prague, studied medicine, got married, had two children, got divorced, and further developed her academe in becoming a researcher and a neuroscientist. In this same interview, Gerta explains a little about how she ended up in England in 1959. Nothing can better give a sense of her character than her own words on this subject:
‘Well I came to this country because while I was in Czechoslovakia, I met an Englishman called Sidney Hilton and we fell in love, wanted to stay together. And really the reason why I came to this country was because I wanted to live with Sidney. And so when I finally managed, because we had a lot of obstacles, to come to this country and get married, I was so happy that everything was rosy. Really my life seemed to be absolutely wonderful.’
Her unfailingly positive spirit is so clear here. There is no cry for attention, no attitude of self-pity, and no element of arrogance despite having lived through all that she did. Furthermore, while she may have underplayed her academic ambitions when narrating this point in her life, focusing instead on the narrative of domestic bliss, Gerta’s career was still rapidly progressing. Shortly after settling in London, Gerta obtained an important position in pharmacology at the Royal Free Hospital, where, after only 6 months, she was awarded a grant from the Medical Research Council. This gave her the financial independence she needed to progress in her research on nerve-muscle interaction. In this research, she was initially based at King’s College, London, then in Birmingham at the university’s departments of Anatomy and Physiology. In 1976, she was invited to the department of Anatomy and Embryology at University College London.
It was there, at UCL, that Gerta was able to expand her study and work with a team of researchers. In a field that was (and still is) largely male-dominated, Gerta had, of course, had first-hand experience of the discrimination against women in science at that time. In the interview referenced above, Gerta details that most of her research team were women. She reports that young females often came to her when seeking a supervisor because she was a role model and pioneer in changing the attitudes of British scientists and British physiologists towards women. 
Gerta’s drive and academic brilliance within a meritocracy led to in excess of a hundred scientific papers during her lifetime. Her academic legacy is carried on in intellectual tradition, and in her former students and their students.
Because my mum was a research assistant to Prof Vrbová whilst doing her PhD part-time, it meant that she did not need to pay the exorbitant tuition fees required of foreign students and was financially reliant on her funding from her research assistantship. Whilst awaiting the arrival of a work permit to extend her visa, it was Gerta who stood in as her financial guarantor, allowing my mother to be paid by UCL until the permit came through. In doing this, Gerta secured part of my mum’s future in this country, where she stayed, completed her PhD and began her scientific career and of course a family. So, it is thanks to this amazing woman, besides everything else, that I am here today.
Thank you for everything, Granny Gerta. You will be so very missed.
Dr David Miller On 08/10/2020 at 11:11am
A delightful and fascinatiing obituary to a truly remarkable person. So many folk today think they face challenges in their lives, but for almost everyone they pale considerably by comparison with Gerta Vrbová and so many of her generation. She remains a powerful role-model for us all and this lovely obituary rightly celebrates a marvellous life.