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Muller, Hermann Joseph

MULLER, HERMANN JOSEPH

(b. New York, N.Y., 21 December 1890; d. Indianapolis, Indiana, 5 April 1967).

genetics, evolution, eugenics.

Muller’s grandfather came to the United States from Germany following the revolution of 1848. His father, for whom he was named, was to train in the law, but instead had to take over the family business of manufacturing bronze artworks. He died when Muller was nine years old, leaving his widow, Frances Lyons, a modest income. Even as a child, Muller was interested in evolution and the sciences; as a student at Morris High School, he founded a science club. Upon graduation, Muller entered Columbia College, where in his sophomore year he decided to make genetics his major study, after reading R. H. Lock’s Heredity, Variation, and Evolution.

At Columbia, Muller attended Edmund B. Wilson’s course, which, through its emphasis on the chromosome theory of heredity, shaped his genetic view of biological problems. He received the B.A. in 1910, then enrolled in Cornell Medical School and the Columbia University department of physiology. His master’s thesis (1912) concerned the transmission of nerve impulses. His interest in genetics was unabated, however, and he remained in daily contact with two of his classmates, Alfred H. Sturtevant and Calvin B. Bridges, who were working at Columbia with Thomas Hunt Morgan. In 1912 Muller himself was accepted by Morgan as a graduate student; he rapidly established a reputation for imaginative theorizing and ingenious experimental design. His dissertation, on crossing-over, contributed the new concepts of coincidence and interference in the resolution of genetic maps and established the law of linear linkage. After taking the Ph.D. in 1916, Muller accepted an invitation from Julian Huxley to teach at Rice Institute. His own research at this time comprised studies of the complex relationship of gene and character in which he isolated and mapped the modifier genes that control the quantitative expression of inherited characteristics. From these investigations Muller was led to recognize the significance of the individual gene.

Muller analyzed mutations to conclude that the concept should be confined to variations arising in the individual gene. Upon his return to Columbia (1918–1920), he produced his most important theoretical work. Since genes, unlike all other cellular components, can reproduce the alterations arising in them (indeed, this property of self-replication is their unique feature), Muller argued that all other cellular components must be ultimately produced by genes; he theorized that life must have begun with the appearance of self-replicating molecules, or “naked genes,” which he thought similar to viruses.

From 1921 until 1932 Muller worked at the University of Texas, where he became full professor. During this period he studied mutation frequency and designed complex genetic stocks to detect the most commonly occurring lethal mutations (which kill unless protected by a normal allele). In 1926 Muller induced mutations by exposing Drosophila to X rays. He reported his findings in an article entitled “Artificial Transmutation of the Gene,” which was published in Science in 1927. This work won Muller an international reputation, stimulated a number of other workers to take up the subject, and became the basis for the study of radiation genetics.

In 1932 Muller went to Berlin, where he spent a year as a Guggenheim fellow working in Oskar Vogt’s Brain Research Institute. He did research with N. W. Timofeev-Ressovsky on mutation, evaluating and criticizing physical models (among them the “target theory”), and exploring the structure of the gene. As Hitler achieved increasing power, Muller, a staunch supporter of socialist causes, decided to leave Germany. He accepted an invitation from N. I. Vavilov to do research in the Soviet Union, which he regarded as an experimental society that would support genetics and eugenics.

Muller worked in Leningrad and Moscow at the Academy of Sciences from 1933 until 1937. He was chiefly concerned with radiation genetics, cytogenetics, and gene structure. By 1935 he was embroiled in the growing controversy about the work of Lysenko, which he could not support. Muller himself hoped to win Soviet sponsorship for basic genetics and for the program of positive eugenics that he presented in his book Out of the Night (New York, 1935). Lysenko won Stalin’s backing, and Muller left the Soviet Union, after volunteering to serve in the Spanish Civil War.

In 1938 Muller received an appointment to the University of Edinburgh, where he analyzed the chromosomal basis of embryonic death from radiation damage. With the outbreak of World War II, he returned to the United States. He thought that it would be difficult to continue scientific research in Great Britain and since he and his second wife, Dorothea Kantorowicz, were part Jewish, he was also concerned with their own safety. He first went to Amherst College, where he continued his genetic studies, and then, in 1945, he secured a permanent post at Indiana University, where he remained until his death.

In 1946 Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He took advantage of the concomitant fame to publicize his campaign against the medical, industrial, and military abuse of radiation.

He also publicly criticized the doctrines of Lysenko and resigned from the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1947. In his later years Muller also worked for the reform of the teaching of biology in secondary schools (he advocated a strong genetic and evolutionary viewpoint) and set out a positive eugenic program, based on what he called “germinal choice,” whereby the semen of unusually healthy and gifted men would be frozen for use by later generations. Although his social views were the subject of considerable public controversy, they were prompted by his genuine scientific concern about the accumulating load of human spontaneous mutations produced by the relaxation of natural selection through modern culture and technology.

Muller was a member of a number of scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, and served as president of several genetic societies and congresses.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. Muller published 372 works, of which a complete bibliography is given by Pontecorvo (below). His published and manuscript articles, correspondence, notebooks, and other scholarly documents are in the Lilly Library of Indiana University in Bloomington. His most famous publication is “Artificial Transmutation of the Gene,” in Science, 66 (1927), 84–87.

II. Secondary Literature. On Muller and his work see E. A. Carlson, “The Legacy of Hermann Joseph Muller: 1890–1967,” in Canadian Journal of Genetics and Cytology, 9 , no. 3 (1967), 437–448; “H. J. Muller,” in Genetics, 70 (1972), 1–30; G. Pontecorvo, “Hermann Joseph Muller 1890–1967,” in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 14 (1968), 349–389, with complete bibliography; and T. M. Sonneborn, “H. J. Muller, Crusader for Human Betterment,” in Science, 162 (1968), 772–776.

Elof Axel Carlson

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Hermann Joseph Muller

Hermann Joseph Muller

The American geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller (1890-1967) was the first to induce mutations in an organism by severe x-ray treatment.

Hermann J. Muller was born in New York City on Dec. 21, 1890. His father died before Hermann was 10 years old, but he had already been imbued by his father with a sense of the grandeur of evolution and a sympathy for oppressed people. After graduation from Morris High School in the Bronx, he entered Columbia University. After receiving a master's degree there in 1911, he continued his studies at the Medical School of Cornell University for a year, returning to Columbia University for his doctorate, which he received in 1916.

At Columbia University Muller came under the influence of Thomas Hunt Morgan, who had gathered together a group of young researchers to study genetic inheritance in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). Muller worked with this group in 1910 and discovered a fly mutant which established the reality of the "M," or fourth, chromosome of the fruit fly. In 1915 Muller joined the biology department of Rice Institute, but 3 years later he returned to Columbia for 2 years of research and teaching. In 1920 he went to the University of Texas.

In 1926 Muller reported at the Sixth International Congress of Genetics in Berlin that he had succeeded in jolting the genes in the chromosomes of the fruit fly; that is, his x-rays had broken them apart and rearranged them, resulting in an increase in the mutation rate 150-fold. He had thus artificially accelerated the evolutionary process. Controlled mutation was now a fact, and overnight, at the age of 36, Muller became famous. For this classic experiment he was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1946. In 1945 Muller was called to Indiana University in Bloomington to become distinguished service professor of zoology. He remained there until his death.

Muller had a strong social awareness and believed that his own researches and the work of other scientists should be used to improve the genetic composition of mankind as well as the general living conditions of all people. He held that the ultimate objective of his own work was "the control of the evolution of man by man himself." After the severe depression that struck the United States in 1929, Muller, who had become sympathetic with some form of socialism, left Texas to work in Germany. But having seen the rise of Nazism, he went on to the Soviet Union in 1933. He was given a laboratory in the Institute of Genetics in Moscow, where he worked as senior geneticist for almost 4 years. However, Trofim Lysenko, who was violently opposed to the Morgan theory of the gene and preached the Lamarckian view of the inheritance of acquired characters, was able to win the political favor of Stalin, and his theory became the official doctrine of heredity in Russia. Those who taught and did research along the lines of Morgan's school of genetics were dismissed or harassed. Muller became disillusioned, left the country, and denounced Russian communism.

In 1955, together with Albert Einstein and other famous scientists, he signed an appeal to all countries to forswear war in view of the danger that the hydrogen bomb would threaten the health of future generations and even the existence of mankind. He campaigned vigorously against the use of nuclear bomb tests because of the harmful mutations that would result. Muller was also interested in the quality of man's life in the future and went so far as to urge the freezing of sperm of gifted men for use after their death in artificial insemination. He fought for the promotion of sperm banks, an idea that provoked bitter criticism.

Between 1955 and 1959 Muller served as president of the American Humanist Association and was president also of the newly launched American Society of Human Genetics. He was a member of many scientific societies as well as of the American Philosophical Society. Muller died of a heart ailment on April 5, 1967.

Further Reading

Muller's unpublished autobiographical notes, written in 1936, are now in the Lilly Rare Books Library of Indiana University. A popular account of his life and achievements is in Bernard Jaffe, Men of Science in America (1944; rev. ed. 1958). □

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Muller, Hermann Joseph

Hermann Joseph Muller (mŭl´ər), 1890–1967, American geneticist and educator, b. New York City, grad. Columbia (B.A., 1910; Ph.D., 1916). A student of Thomas Hunt Morgan, he taught (1915–18) at Rice Institute, Tex., at Columbia (1918–20), and at the Univ. of Texas from 1920 until he became senior geneticist (1933–37) of the Institute of Genetics in Moscow. In 1945 he became professor of zoology at Indiana Univ. His method for recognizing spontaneous gene mutation led to his discovery of a technique for artificially inducing mutations by means of X rays that has since had broad theoretical and practical application. For this discovery he was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His writings include Out of the Night (1935), Genetics, Medicine, and Man (1947; written with others), and Studies in Genetics (1962). He also wrote articles on the biological effects of atomic radiation.

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Muller, HermannJoseph

Muller, HermannJoseph (1890–1967)An American geneticist, who was awarded the 1927 American Association for the Advancement of Science Prize and the 1946 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his discovery in 1927 that X-rays increase the rate of gene mutation. His research into mutations and studies of genetic theory contributed greatly to the understanding of heredity and evolution. He taught at the University of Texas, moved to Germany in 1932, and from 1933–7 was senior geneticist at the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Following his return to the United States, he held several posts before being appointed professor of zoology at Indiana University in 1945.

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Muller, Hermann Joseph

Muller, Hermann Joseph (1890–1967) US geneticist. Muller found that he could artifically increase the rate of mutations in the fruit fly (Drosophila) by the use of X-rays. He thus highlighted the human risk in exposure to radioactive material. He received the 1946 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

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