Hermann J Muller (1890-1967), American Geneticist: Radiation and Mutation Studies in the USA, USSR and Edinburgh

Muller LeninContinuing with the Soviet –Edinburgh genetics link, this week’s post focuses on the American geneticist and Nobel laureate, Hermann Joseph Muller (1890-1967) known for his work on the physiological and genetic effects of radiation. Born in New York City, he attended Columbia College for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees focussing on biology and the Drosophila genetics work of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s fly lab and was an early convert of the Mendelian-chromosome theory of heredity — and the concept of genetic mutations and natural selection as the basis for evolution. He formed a Biology Club and also became a proponent of eugenics; the connections between biology and society would be his perennial concern. Muller’s career first took him to the William Marsh Rice Institute, now Rice University  in Houston in 1915, then back to Columbia College in 1918 where he continued teaching and expanding on his work on mutation rate and lethal mutations. In 1919, Muller made the important discovery of a mutant (later found to be a chromosomal inversion) that appeared to suppress crossing-over, which opened up new avenues in mutation rate studies. He was additionally interested in eugenics and investigated After Columbia, he went to the University of Texas and began to investigate radium and x-rays and the relationship between radiation and mutation.  After a period of time Muller became disillusioned with the political situation in the United States and life in Texas and so, in 1932 he moved to Berlin, Germany to work with Nikolai Timofeev-Ressovsky, a Russian geneticist. Initially, his move was to be a limited sabbatical that turned into an eight-year five country stay. Later in 1932 Muller moved to the Soviet Union after being investigated by the FBI due to his involvement with the leftist (Communist) newspaper, The Spark, that he contributed to when in Texas. In Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) then Moscow, Muller worked at the Institute of Genetics where he imported the basic laboratory equipment and flies for a Drosophila lab.Muller Human Genetics USSR At the Institute, Muller organized work on medical genetics and explored the relationship between genetics and radiation in more detail and completed his eugenics book, Out of the Night in which the main ideas dated to 1910. By 1936 Stalin and Lysenko were making it difficult for scientists and geneticists to work in the USSR (see previous post on the Lysenko Controversy) and Muller was forced to leave after Stalin read a translation of his eugenics book.

Muller moved to Edinburgh in September 1937 with c250 strains of Drosophila and began working for the University of Edinburgh. In 1939 the Seventh International Congress on Genetics was held in Edinburgh and Muller wrote a ‘Geneticists’ Manifesto’ in response to the question, “How could the world’s population be improved most effectively genetically?”

In 1940, he moved back to the United States to work with Otto Glaser at Amherst College and consulted on the Manhattan Project as well as a study of the mutational effects of radar. In 1945, owing to difficulties stemming from his Socialist leanings, he moved to Bloomington, Indiana to work in the Zoology Department at Indiana University. In 1946, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for the discovery that mutations can be induced by x-rays”.

Muller signature visitors book

In 1955 Muller was one of eleven prominent intellectuals to sign the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, the upshot of which was the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs in 1957, which addressed the control of nuclear weapons. He was a signatory (with many other scientists) of the 1958 petition to the United Nations, calling for an end to nuclear weapons testing, which was initiated by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling.[3]

3 – John Bellamy Foster (2009). The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet, Monthly Review Press, New York, pp. 71-72.


Stefan Kopeć in the Alan Greenwood archive

Stefan Kopec 2

Stefan and Maria Kopec

The Alan Greenwood archive contains a variety of material, from degree certificates and correspondence to copies of lectures and scientific papers. However, one of the most fascinating parts of the archive is a collection of photographs which not only contains some nineteenth-century portraits of Greenwood’s ancestors, but also visually documents the work done at the Institute of Animal Genetics Poultry Research Centre from the period Greenwood was director (1947-1962), as well as some earlier photographs from the Institute of Animal Genetics, where Greenwood worked from 1923. The photographs have been mounted on around 100 pages of paper which look to have at one time been fixed inside a folder or album, and are annotated in Greenwood’s hand. The photographs consist mainly of official portraits and photographs taken for publicity and press purposes, informal snaps of conferences and social events and also more personal, intimate pictures of scientists and members of their family. The first page of photographs in the collection is from the latter category, and depicts Polish biologist Stefan Kopeć (1888-1941) and his daughter Maria. When I first came across these pictures whilst cataloguing, I was struck by the intimacy of the shots: Kopeć sits, his spectacles lying on one side, looking frankly at the camera. The second picture shows Maria tenderly embracing her father. I thought these pictures were remarkably domestic and personal for a collection which mainly consists of pictures of scientists ‘at work’, and it piqued my interest in finding out more about Kopeć and his daughter.

It proved to be quite a story. Stefan Kopeć was a pioneering insect endocrinologist, publishing papers in academic journals in Polish, English and German. After receiving his PhD at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków in 1912, he joined the Pulawy Agricultural Research Station in Poland and was made director there in 1929. His most important contribution to science was his discovery of the role of the insect brain in the production of hormones, and this study laid the groundwork for what is now called neuroendocrinology. As for Kopeć’s connection with Alan Greenwood, I was aware that they had published a joint paper, ‘The Effects of Yolk Injections on the Plumage of an Ovariotomised Brown Leghorn Hen’ (Development Genes and Evolution, 121:1-2, 87-95) in 1929-1930, so it seemed likely that Kopeć visited the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO) at some point around this time. Records in the Institute of Animal Genetics (as the department became known) collection are scanty from this period, but I was delighted to come across a message from Kopeć in the Institute’s visitors’ book dated January 4th 1928, along with another photograph. Kopec writes:

Stefan Kopec IAG photo guestbookThe seven months I spent in the ABRO have been most profitable for me. I gained there some valuable methods and many important suggestions. I was very sorry to have to leave the place where I also got many good friends. Ladies and gentlemen! (both from the laboratories and poultry houses and from the office!) Please accept many thanks for all your kindness, all advice and help and be sure of my gratitude. Do not miss any opportunity to visit me in Pulawy. In the name of myself and my colleagues, of my wife and my F1-generation (♂ and ♀), of my rabbits, mice, fowls and other laboratory creatures I assure you of a very warm welcome…

The rest of the story, however, is not so positive. In 1940, Kopeć was arrested and imprisoned in Poland by the Gestapo along with his daughter Maria and son Stanislaw for their involvement in a Polish underground university. In 1941, Stefan and Stanislaw were executed at Palmiry, near Warsaw, in reprisal against an action of the Polish underground army.

Stefan’s daughter Maria however, went on to be a distinguished radiation scientist, receiving the prestigious Maria Skłodowska-Curie Medal in 1983, while Stefan Kopeć ‘s name lives on in the annual International Conference on Anthropods the Stefan Kopeć  Memorial Conference at the University of Wroclaw.

Photographs like these can have enormous power in the ability to open up individual life stories. Kopeć’s story demonstrates the interrelationship between different collections in the ‘Towards Dolly’ project and reflects the sometimes complex but always fascinating story of animal genetics in Edinburgh.