This Day in Jewish History

2005: A Rothschild Fascinated by Fleas Dies

A humanitarian, zoologist and advocate of both animal and human rights, as well as seat belts, Dame Miriam was bitten by the bug thanks to her father.

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On January 20, 2005, Dame Miriam Louisa Rothschild died, at the age of 96. A scion of the English branch of the banking family, she made her own name as entomologist, botanist, zoologist, as well as great humanitarian. As a world-class expert on fleas, it was Rothschild who identified the mechanism by which the tiny pest jumps – though that is but one of her many claims to fame.

Miriam Louisa Rothschild was born on August 5, 1908, at her family’s home, Ashton Wold, in East Northamptonshire, England. Her father, (Nathaniel) Charles Rothschild, was the grandson of Lionel de Rothschild, the first Jewish member of Parliament, and great-great-grandson of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the founder of the European banking dynasty. Her mother, the Hungarian-born, former Rozsika Edle von Wertheimstein, came from the first Jewish family in Europe to be ennobled.

Like her siblings, Miriam was educated at home under the supervision of her father, a banker but also an entomologist who passed on his love of fleas to his daughter. Charles, who named 500 different flea species during his career, was responsible for identifying the rat flea that carried bubonic plague. Miriam’s Uncle Walter Rothschild was also a serious naturalist who established a private natural history museum at his estate, Tring.

In 1923, When Miriam was 15, her father killed himself, after contracting encephalitis. Thereafter, Walter took over her scientific training. Finally, at age 17 and at her insistence, Miriam was permitted to study zoology at the Chelsea College of Science and Technology.

Refugees and romance

She never formally completed her studies, however (as she explained it, “You always wanted to hear somebody talk on Ruskin when it was time to dissect a sea urchin”). The eight academic degrees she received during her life were all honorary.

During the 1930s, Rothschild did research on the mollusk Nucula and on trematode worms (better known as “flukes”) at the Marine Biological Station, in Plymouth.

In the years preceding World War II, she pressed the British government to permit more Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe into the country. She was also active in providing shelter, sometimes at the family home, for Jewish children who had been brought to England. Later, Ashton Wold served as a field hospital, and it was there that Miriam met Capt. George Lane, a Hungarian-born, Jewish émigré to the U.K., who served in a commando unit and was recuperating at the Rothschild manse after being injured in a parachute jump. They married in 1943, and before divorcing amicably 14 years later, had three children and had adopted another.

During the war’s first two years, Rothschild worked as a code-breaker at the top-secret intelligence facility at Bletchley Park.

Flowers and seat belts

Miriam Rothschild was occupied not only with fleas (one of her projects was the publication of six volumes cataloguing the 500 species discovered by her father, while another of her books, “Atlas of Insect Tissue,” featured on its cover an illustration of a flea vagina), but was also a student of botany who worked to introduce wild flowers to roads and parks.

She was personally engaged in a number of social and political activities. After studying the methods used by British slaughterhouses to kill animals, she campaigned to make them more humane – and also became a vegetarian. She fought to have children receive milk for free in schools, and for the decriminalization of homosexuality.

After a sister, Elizabeth Charlotte, developed schizophrenia, she cared for her and also she founded a research foundation intended to study and development treatments for mental illness. Miriam Rothschild even became a crusader for the use of seat belts.

Attempting, perhaps, to explain her polymath’s range of activities, Rothschild offered the following observation: “I must say, I find everything interesting.” At another time, in a somewhat cryptic comment about her clan’s involvement, wherever its members lived, in public life, she suggested that, “countries get the Rothschilds they deserves.”

In the case of Miriam Louisa, Great Britain got a Rothschild who was generous, tireless, creative, tolerant and also proudly Jewish.