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.


The Lysenko Controversy: Soviet Genetics and Edinburgh

Lysenko RussianBritain has been fortunate in the freedom it has enjoyed to carry out scientific research; something which has not always been the case with other parts of the world. The animal genetics archives here are full of individual stories of persecution, government interference and other threats to research and human life. In fact, in the 1930s the Institute of Animal Genetics became a haven for many refugees escaping the rise of fascism (not least H.J Muller and Charlotte Auerbach), but there was trouble on the left side of the political spectrum too.

The Seventh International Congress of Genetics was planned to be held in Moscow in 1937, but interminable delays in the planning process meant that eventually a decision was made to relocate to Edinburgh at the later date of August 1939, where the Congress would be hosted by the Institute of Animal Genetics and organised by its director, F.A.E Crew. The exact reasons for such a delay from the Russians were not made apparent to the Congress’ international planning committee, but it would have been clear to anyone with a vague idea of what was afoot in the Soviet Union at that time.

Trofim Lysenko had been director of the Soviet Union’s Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences since the 1920s, where he claimed to have developed a new agricultural technique which promised to solve the Soviet Union’s agricultural crisis and famines. ‘Vernalisation’ seemed like the magic solution, and Lysenko was hailed as a Soviet hero (although his theory did not produce the results he claimed and was backed by fake experimental data). However, the practice did not produce anywhere near the increase in crop yields that he had predicted. Lysenko’s theories were based on the grounds that characteristics that were acquired by an organism during a lifetime could be passed on to the next generation – a theory which went against evolutionary theory and Mendelism.

Once Lysenko was in a position of power, his influence was disastrous for Soviet scientists. He began a campaign of denouncing theoretical genetics and all biologists who did not hold his views. In 1949, genetics was officially declared ‘a bourgeois pseudo-science’ and all geneticists were dismissed from their jobs and genetics research discontinued. Many were also arrested; some were sentenced to death. One victim of the arrests was Nikolai Vavilov, who was to have been Chairman at the Congress of Genetics in Moscow. Once the Congress was relocated to Edinburgh, Vavilov and some 50 Russian geneticists planned to travel over to present their papers. However, less than a month before the Congress was due to begin, Crew and his organising committee learned that the Russians had been forbidden to come; Vavilov was ultimately arrested and died in prison in 1943. Although the Congress went ahead without the Russian delegates, it was much overshadowed by the outbreak of war across Europe. (In fact, Britain declared war on Germany while the Congress was still in progress, and Crew laboured to ensure that all foreign delegates returned safely home, or else sought refuge elsewhere.)

One British geneticist who took a good deal of interest in the ‘Lysenko Controversy’ as it became known, was Geoffrey Beale, best known as the founder of malarial genetics. Beale, who worked within the Institute of Animal Genetics from 1947 until his retirement in 1978, had a lifelong interest in the Russian language. His personal papers and library, currently being catalogued here at Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, contains many examples of his reading and research into Russia and Russian science particularly. His best known article on the subject was ‘The cult of T.D Lysenko: thirty appalling years’, a review (published in the Science Journal, October 1969) of I.M. Lerner’s translation of Z.A. Medvedev’s book The Rise and Fall of T.D Lysenko.

Lysenkoism remained established in many countries in the Eastern Bloc, and in China until the late 1950s. The ban on genetics research was finally lifted in the Soviet Union in 1964 when Lysenko retired from his post. In Beale’s words, the Lysenko affair was ‘the most extraordinary, tragic and in some ways absurd, scientific battle that there has ever been.’