1915 – 2013

AUBURN — Irene Sarring (Zarina) White, M.S., M.A., 97, of Auburn, biochemist, professor and author, moved to “better hunting grounds” (as she liked to say) on Monday, July 29, at Androscoggin Hospice House.

She was born in Riga, Latvia, on Oct. 28, 1915, in the midst of World War I, the daughter of Elfriede (Lane) and August Sarring. Irene grew up in newly independent Latvia in the first generation able to pursue higher education. She was the only female student in the Chemistry Department at the University of Latvia (and also first in her class). Just two days after her graduation in June 1940, with an MS in biochemistry, the Red Army invaded her home country, forcing Latvia to join the Soviet Union. To escape deportation to Siberia, the fate of many relatives, friends, and colleagues, Irene and her mother fled to Nazi Germany as refugees. How they survived World War II in Frankfurt, Germany, is detailed in Irene’s book, “Fire Burn,” taken from her diaries and published in 2006.

In 1946, Irene met Dr. Merit Penniman White, a civil engineer with the Allied Occupation who was engaged in a survey of German scientists. He had previously served the U.S. war effort, working with Albert Einstein in Princeton, N.J., on the atomic bomb project. Irene and Merit were married within a year and moved to Massachusetts in 1949, where Merit was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Irene continued her career while raising three daughters in Northampton, Mass. Her first job in the U.S. came in 1951, teaching physics at Smith College. She then worked as a research chemist at Johnson & Johnson in Chicopee Falls, and for ten years, at John H. Breck Shampoo in Springfield. She finished that part of her professional life as a junior professor in the Biochemistry Department at UMass, where she was in charge of the labs. While at UMass, she fulfilled a lifelong wish — attaining a second master’s degree in German literature at the age of 60.

In 1982, after her retirement, she moved to Westerly, R.I., which she used as a base for consulting, traveling (including nine trips to Africa), public speaking and completing her book.


In 2004, she moved to Schooner Estates in Auburn to be closer to family. There, Irene’s energy and zest for life made an impact on everyone who knew her. She continued to lecture and entertain with her life’s stories, sharing the wisdom she had gained from her experiences.

Irene’s great belief in education and her pioneering success as a female scientist served as an inspiration to younger women, especially to her daughters and grandchildren. Her greatest pride, however, was her family. She often remarked how incredible it was that she (an only child) had ten grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, with three more on the way.

She leaves her daughters, Mary White-Kaba, Ph.D. and her husband, Jean-Pierre Kaba, of Niamey, Niger; Irene White Berwick, M.S. and her partner, Cathy Black, of Greenfield, Mass., and Dr. Elizabeth White Randall and her husband, Dr. John Randall, of New Gloucester; her grandchildren, Eleanor Meyer and her husband, Jason, Janneke Strickland and her husband, Garred, Emrys Berwick and his fiancée, Brittany Bevaqua, Mark, Frank, and Jack Kaba, Martin Voigt, Tina Voigt and her fiancé, Trevor Herrick, and Mary and Sydney Randall; great-grandchildren, Isabelle Kaba, Elizabeth and William Strickland, and Everett and Henry Meyer; and son-in-law, Alan Berwick of Lake Pleasant, Mass.

Irene was predeceased by her husband, Merit, in 1996. 

The family wishes to express their deep gratitude to the staff at Schooner Estates, Androscoggin Hospice House and Central Maine Medical Center for their outstanding professional and caring support, especially in the last year and throughout Irene’s final illness.

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