Friday, December 17, 2010

Life Lines 83


Herman Joseph Muller (H.J. Muller in publications, Herman to his friends before 1940, and Joe to his friends after that date) was my graduate school mentor and recipient of a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1946 for first discovering that x-rays induce mutations. He is best known as the founder of the field of radiation genetics.

Muller (1890-1967) was a third generation American who grew up in New York City and attended Morris High School in the Bronx. He attended Columbia University on scholarship and joined the new school of fruit fly genetics founded by Thomas Hunt Morgan, himself a Nobel laureate (1933).

I wrote Muller’s biography some years ago because I thought his life unusual for a scientist. In an era when scientists avoided the public, Muller lived a life of controversy. He was a student socialist, a tough-minded idiosyncratic scientist who did not hesitate to tell off his own mentor and senior scientists when he felt they were wrong. He was competitive, energetic, and committed as a scholar to “the winning of the facts.” He had international stature when he was in his 20s. He brought the first fruit flies to the USSR. He edited a Communist-front student newspaper (The Spark) on the University of Texas campus where he did his Nobel Prize experiments. He denounced American eugenics as racist, sexist, and based on spurious elitism. He went to Germany on a Guggenheim shortly after attempting suicide. He fled Hitler and went to the USSR for five years and lived to witness the arrest and execution of two of his students. He escaped by fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

I went to Indiana University to study with Muller. He was short (5 foot 2 inches), bald, and energetic. He worked seven days a week. He demanded the same. He argued every sentence I wrote and demanded precision and better evidence for my ideas. He had risked his life in three countries denouncing tyranny and lost his job at Texas through his infatuation with Communism. He fought to protect the public from radiation damage. Some people attract trouble and thrive on controversy. Muller was one. He took on capitalists, communists, fascists, Cold Warriors of the left, and Cold Warriors of the right. He said he’d rather be dead than Red. Throughout his ordeals he held steadfast to two ideals. He searched for the truth in genetics and sought to learn all he could about mutation and the gene. He also kept reviving a belief in the potential wisdom of humanity to use the knowledge of genetics to improve our lives and to bestow on future generations a healthier heredity than we ourselves had.

Muller was a gadfly. He belongs to the tradition of a Socrates, a Thomas Paine, or a Martin Luther King,Jr. They are often reviled in their lifetime but revered for their contributions to humanity. For every loving Mother Teresa there is a pugnacious Henry David Thoreau, ready to rub our noses into reality. We need both kinds of saints.

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