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Curt Jacob Stern was born in Hamburg, Germany. He studied zoology at the University of Berlin and received his PhD in 1923 at the age of 21. He was awarded a post-graduate fellowship at Columbia University, then the site of Thomas Hunt Morgan's famous Fly Room (so-named for the fruit fly Drosophila, the subject of genetic research for Morgan).
Although Stern accepted an appointment at the University of Berlin after his fellowship ended, he returned to the United States in 1932 and became an American citizen in 1939. From 1933 to 1947, he taught at the University of Rochester. From 1947 until his retirement in 1970, he was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, where he had numerous doctoral students.
In 1931, Stern was the first to demonstrate crossover of homologous chromosomes in Drosophila melanogaster, only weeks after Barbara McClintock and Harriet Creighton had done so in maize (corn). In 1936, he demonstrated that recombination can also take place in mitosis resulting in somatic mosaics, organisms that contain two or more genetically distinct types of tissues. He later demonstrated that there were multiple genes on the Drosophila Y chromosome, and described the mechanism of dosage compensation.
During World War II, he led research for the American government on low-dose radiation safety. His laboratory group concluded that there is no "safe" threshold below which radiation is not harmful.
Re-founding human genetics 
After the war his research focused on human genetics, pioneering in what is now known as gene regulation. Although not a physician, he engaged in clinical work in human genetics. In 1943 he began teaching a course in human genetics to medical students at the University of Rochester. The first edition of Stern's pioneering textbook The Principles of Human Genetics was published in 1949. Both his teaching and his textbook were instrumental in re-founding human genetics on a non-racist basis, in sharp contrast with pre-war German and American traditions in the subject. Stern was a signatory of the 1950 UNESCO statement The Race Question, a statement by leading scientists in many fields that questioned the validity and scientific foundations of racial theories and eugenics.
- Burian, Richard M. (2000). "Stern, Curt, in American National Biography Online".
- "Dr. Curt Stern, 79; Influential teacher of human genetics". New York Times. 1981-10-31.
- Stern, Curt (1968). Genetic mosaics and other essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
- Stern, Curt (1973). Principles of human genetics (3 ed.). San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.
- Curt Stern Papers at the American Philosophical Society