Regina Kapeller-Adler

This WiSE Wednesday’s feature covers the heroic determination of biochemist and pharmacologist Regina Kapeller-Adler. Her pioneering research in women’s health not only revolutionized pregnancy detection methods, but would also provide her with a ticket to freedom from Nazi persecution during World War II.

Kapeller-Adler was born on June 28th 1900 to a Jewish family in Stanislau, present-day Ukraine. Despite resistance from her parents, she became the first in her family to pursue higher education after enrolling in a chemistry doctoral program at the University of Vienna. Kapeller-Adler graduated with her PhD in 1923, was appointed to the Medical Chemistry Department, and later became one of the University’s few female ‘Assistant’ lecturers in 1926. Aside from her aptitude for teaching, her most significant scientific contribution was her invention of a novel pregnancy test in 1934. Standard pregnancy tests during that time required use of rodents, rabbits, or frogs, and results took several days to be determined. Kapeller-Adler discovered that measuring the level of histidine in a woman’s urine was a more rapid, economical, and straightforward method for detecting a pregnancy.

Although Kapeller-Adler published this groundbreaking work in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1936, she was discouraged from applying for a higher title at the University due to her being both a woman and a Jew. Despite a discriminatory ruling which ended her paid position as an Assistant, she continued to teach and conduct research for the University, without pay, until she was appointed director of the clinical laboratory of a private hospital. Additionally, she commenced studying for a medical degree to further pursue her more clinically oriented academic interests. However, annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany barred Kapeller-Adler from taking her final medical exam in March 1938, and both she and her husband, Dr. Ernst Adler, were dismissed from their jobs.

Kapeller-Adler and her husband continued to face torment and threats of deportation to concentration camps until she was contacted by the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning through the help of geneticist Dr. Francis Albert Eley Crew. Crew had been interested in her pregnancy test discovery, and offered Kapeller-Adler a position at the University of Edinburgh to conduct research in his newly established Pregnancy Diagnosis Laboratory. Kapeller-Adler secured safe passage and fled to Scotland in 1939 alongside her husband and their four-year old daughter, Liselotte.

Although virtually penniless and with no knowledge of English, Kapeller-Adler continued to develop her academic career. She was awarded the Degree of Doctor of Science by the University of Edinburgh in 1941, and she expanded her workload to include membership in the pharmacology department and chemistry lecturer. In 1973, she was presented with the University of Vienna’s Golden Honorary Diploma. Kapeller-Adler retired in 1965, but still continued to teach and conduct research. She died in 1991 in Edinburgh at the age of 91. Kapeller-Adler’s pioneering spirit and passion for scientific inquiry was passed on to her daughter; Liselotte would later graduate from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in medicine and later worked as a medical editor.

Written by Nicole Sivetz

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