Sunday, July 21, 2013



In 1953 I joined the laboratory of H. J. Muller at Indiana University in Bloomington.  Muller received a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1946 for his work inducing mutations in fruit flies with x-rays.  He is considered the founding father of radiation genetics.  He had considerable fame before his discovery of radiation mutagenesis and with T. H. Morgan, C. B. Bridges, and A. H. Sturtevant was a member of the “fly lab” that helped launch classical genetics in the United States. 

Working with Muller was intense because he worked seven days a week and expected his students to do so also.  He was committed to genetics as his life’s work and communicated that energy and enthusiasm by his example.  He taught three courses each year and brought to them the latest knowledge in genetics and the history of each topic we explored.  He liked to think on his feet and rarely had more than a 3 inch square piece of paper with notes for his lectures.  Muller told us that genetics was not like a game. He said it was the most subversive science because it dealt with the most controversial implications for society.  He took a leading role in defending the public from radiation abuse.  There was plenty of that in medicine -- excess radiation used when not needed such as straightening out a child’s bow legs, using radiation at very high doses (100 roentgens) to induce ovulation in infertile women, routine x-raying in the pelvic (gonadal) area by chiropractors.  There was also abuse in commercial applications (shoe fitting in shoe stores using fluoroscopes).  Manufacturing usage often involved x-raying welding for ship building with inadequate or no shielding for workers. After WW II he spoke out against abuses by the military with excessive atmospheric testing and poor protection for soldiers and sailors during those military exercises.  Muller felt risks should be understood and doses kept as low as possible and abuses regulated by law. 

Muller’s life was filled with contradictions and controversies.  He believed in freedom but he naively believed that freedom existed in the USSR.  When he went there in 1933-1937 he learned he was wrong and two of his students were arrested and executed as Trotskyites.  Muller had the courage to debate T. D. Lysenko who advocated western genetics was a bourgeois fascistic invention and that Lysenko could alter heredity by shattering it and retraining it.  Muller called Lysenko on stage a charlatan no different from those practicing shamanism and quackery.  Muller’s conscience resonated with my own and I have tried to communicate to my students in my non-majors biology classes that scientific knowledge has to be applied in an ethical context because there are unintended consequences to the uses of new knowledge.  I later wrote Muller’s biography and over the years I have had to respond to attacks on his integrity as a scientist by those that Muller would accuse of living by wishful thinking or denial. 


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