Escaping persecution to study the effects of nuclear war

Dr Anita Mandl (BSc Zoology, 1947) was a distinguished scientist and artist. While her story is unique, Anita’s fierce independence and resilience will be familiar to all in the Birkbeck community.
1926 – 2022

Anita with her husband Denys in their garden in Budleigh Salterton on their wedding day, 1965.

Anita Mandl and her brother arrived in London from Czechoslovakia in 1939 on one of the last of Nicholas Winton’s humanitarian Kindertransports; she was 13 years old.

They were two of the 669 children that Winton was able to transport from Czechoslovakia to flee the coming war and the escalating persecution of Jewish communities.

Born in Prague in 1926 to a middle-class family of Jewish heritage, Anita’s father owned a paper mill and her mother was a pianist. Neither parent survived WWII. Her father died of illness soon after the war began, while her mother was sent to a concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia. She was forced to play concerts for the Nazi commanders throughout the war. On the day peace was declared she was murdered by her captors.

A Quaker schoolmistress in East London sponsored Anita’s life and education. However from 16 years old, Anita was determined to be financially independent and enrolled at Walthamstow College of Typing. She went on to work in Islington at the British Valve and Electrical Accessories Company. She was the youngest of their secretaries and earned £5 per week, which she used to finance her evening studies at Birkbeck, while V1 and V2 bombs fell around London. Birkbeck was the only London university to remain open during the Blitz. She studied a general Bachelor of Science degree, graduating in 1946, then achieved a First Class Honours in Zoology in 1947.

Anita later joined the University of Birmingham Anatomy department, where she gained a PhD in 1951. She worked closely with celebrated zoologist Lord Zuckerman (1904 -1993), collaborating on research on the effect of radiation on cells in the ovary. In the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, this was considered a vital contribution to understanding potential mutations in the event of nuclear war.

Research into cancer with Dr Denys Jennings (1904 – 1995) led to a long term partnership. They married in 1965. While in Birmingham, Anita enrolled herself at night school once again. This time it was at the Birmingham College of Art, where Head of Sculpture John Bridgeman encouraged her to specialise in sculpture. Her portraits of British zoologist Solly Zuckerman and biochemist Peter Mitchell are part of the art collections at the University of Birmingham and Zoological Society of London.

When she moved to Devon with Denys, she became a full time sculptor and produced just short of a thousand sculptures, mostly of animals. Anita was elected to fellowships of the Royal West of England Academy of Art as well as the Royal Society of Sculptors. She exhibited works nationally, always delivering her sculptures in vintage suitcases reminiscent of the case she arrived with from Czechoslovakia.

A collection of Anita’s sculptures

Anita Mandl, independent to the last, died at her home in Devon on Christmas Eve 2022.