Hermann Joseph Muller Biography (1890-1967)


In a career that took him through Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, Muller achieved scientific distinction while spawning political controversy. He isbest known for his discovery that x-rays could induce artificial mutations in genes, a finding that won him a Nobel Prize in 1946.

Muller was born in New York City on December 1, 1890. His studies began at Columbia University, where he was influenced by Edmund Beecher Wilson and his emphasis on the role of chromosomes in heredity. Perhaps more importantly, Muller also became an associate of Thomas Hunt Morgan, researching natural mutations in Drosophilia (fruit fly). In Morgan's fly lab, Muller first established himself as an untraditional thinker, proposing imaginative theoriesand designing creative experiments. He may have been too much of an iconoclast, though, for his relationships with others were fractious, and Morgan himself found Muller somewhat presumptuous and idealistic. Personal conflicts aside, Muller's research at Columbia established several fundamentals of genetics, including the crossing-over of genes and their linear linkage in heredity.

Muller earned his Ph.D. in 1916, and left New York to continue his research at Rice Institute in Texas. There, while analyzing mutations, he isolated andmapped the modifier genes that control inherited characteristics. From this,Muller concluded that heredity was determined by variations in individual genes, giving them a primacy not realized before. Muller returned to Columbia for a brief period in 1918. During this time, he formulated one of his most important theories: that since genes are the only parts of cells that can replicate the changes that occur in them, they must be the source of everything inthe cell, and, by extension, of life itself.

Muller finally left Columbia for good two years later, when he landed a position at the University of Texas. During his twelve years there, he achieved his most important discovery: that x-rays induced mutations in Drosophila chromosomes by altering gene structure. This finding, published in 1927, established Muller as an international figure. It also formed the nucleus of anew discipline, radiation genetics.

Muller became a member of the American Academy of Sciences in 1931, but personal difficulties soon took over. His socialist views garnered suspicion at the university, his marriage dissolved, and a financial crisis loomed. The combined stress was overwhelming; he suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Muller recovered, but found himself ostracized in the uncompromisingpolitical climate of the thirties. He spent 1933 in Berlin as a Guggenheim fellow, investigating genetic structure and mutations at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Hitler's Germany, however, proved equally inhospitable to a socialist, and he soon departed for Moscow and the Soviet Institute of Genetics.

Muller believed that the Soviet Union was an enlightened society, where his work on genetics and its tangent, eugenics, would be supported. Unfortunately,there he ran afoul of Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976), a politically ambitious scientist who had rejected the Mendelian laws of heredity and adopted instead the fallacious belief that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Stalinwas convinced of this pseudoscience as well, and Lysenko's useless theorieswere taught as gospel. Soviet scientists who dared to disagree were banished.Muller scoffed at these ideas and asserted his own by writing Out of theNight. He sent Stalin a copy of the book, but to no avail. His proposalswere rejected, and the Institute was accused of racism and that gravest of socialist sins, class elitism. For the next four years, Muller contented himself with diatribes against Lysenko and a futile defense of genetics.

The situation gradually became intolerable, and Muller left to fight in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The year 1938 brought Muller an appointment to theUniversity of Edinburgh. He spent three years at the Institute of Animal Genetics, analyzing radiation-induced lethal mutations in embryos. As the war loomed, he returned to the United States. He had remarried, and since both he and his new wife were part Jewish, they had begun to fear for their own safety.He went first to Amherst College. Then in 1945, he secured a professorship in zoology at Indiana University, a position he held until his death.

It was while working at Indiana University in 1946 that Muller finally received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He used the fame the award finally brought as an opportunity to champion various causes. Muller warned thatthe increasing medicinal and industrial use of radiation could wreak havoc onthe human gene pool, affecting future generations. He continued his attackson Lysenko, withdrawing from the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1947. He urgededucators to reform the teaching of biology, emphasizing genetics and evolution in science curricula.

His most controversial idea was a eugenics program in which the sperm of highly gifted and intelligent men would be frozen and stored for later use. In anation still polarized by race and horrified by the Nazis' genocide and belief in selective breeding, such a suggestion could only meet with resistance. Muller was motivated, though, by his genuine concern for the future of the human race, which he thought was threatened by technology and the loss of natural selection. He believed that it was possible to guide the evolution of mankind and create a better allotment of positive qualities than would naturally occur.

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