Hermann Joseph Muller

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Hermann Joseph Muller

HJ Muller 1952.jpg
Muller in 1952
Born(1890-12-21)December 21, 1890
New York City, U.S.
DiedApril 5, 1967(1967-04-05) (aged 76)
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
Alma materColumbia University
Known forThe genetic effects of radiation
  • Jessie Marie Jacobs (m. 1923)
  • Dorothea Kantorowicz (m. 1939)
Scientific career
FieldsGenetics, molecular biology
Doctoral advisorThomas Hunt Morgan
Doctoral studentsH. Bentley Glass
InfluencesJ. T. Patterson

Hermann Joseph Muller (December 21, 1890 – April 5, 1967) was an American geneticist, educator, and Nobel laureate best known for his work on the physiological and genetic effects of radiation (mutagenesis), as well as his outspoken political beliefs.[2] Muller frequently warned of long-term dangers of radioactive fallout from nuclear war and nuclear testing, which resulted in greater public scrutiny of these practices.

Early life[edit]

Muller was born in New York City, the son of Frances (Lyons) and Hermann Joseph Muller Sr., an artisan who worked with metals. Muller was a third-generation American whose father's ancestors were originally Catholic and came to the United States from Koblenz.[3] His mother's family was of mixed Jewish (descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews) and Anglican background, and had come from Britain.[3][4] Among his first cousins was Alfred Kroeber (Kroeber was Ursula Le Guin's father) and first cousins once removed was Herbert J. Muller.[3] As an adolescent, Muller attended a Unitarian church and considered himself a pantheist; in high school, he became an atheist.[5] He excelled in the public schools. At 16, he entered Columbia College. From his first semester, he was interested in biology; he became an early convert of the Mendelian-chromosome theory of heredity—and the concept of genetic mutations and natural selection as the basis for evolution. He formed a biology club and also became a proponent of eugenics; the connections between biology and society would be his perennial concern. Muller earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1910.[6]

Muller remained at Columbia (the pre-eminent American zoology program at the time, due to E. B. Wilson and his students) for graduate school. He became interested in the Drosophila genetics work of Thomas Hunt Morgan's fly lab after undergraduate bottle washers Alfred Sturtevant and Calvin Bridges joined his biology club. In 1911–1912, he studied metabolism at Cornell University, but remained involved with Columbia. He followed the drosophilists as the first genetic maps emerged from Morgan's experiments, and joined Morgan's group in 1912 (after two years of informal participation).[7]

In the fly group, Muller's contributions were primarily theoretical—explanations for experimental results and ideas and predictions for new experiments. In the emerging collaborative culture of the drosophilists, however, credit was assigned based on results rather than ideas; Muller felt cheated when he was left out of major publications.[8]


In 1914, Julian Huxley offered Muller a position at the recently founded William Marsh Rice Institute, now Rice University; he hurried to complete his Doctor of philosophy degree and moved to Houston for the beginning of the 1915–1916 academic year (his degree was issued in 1916). At Rice, Muller taught biology and continued Drosophila lab work. In 1918, he proposed an explanation for the dramatic discontinuous alterations in Oenothera lamarckiana that were the basis of Hugo de Vries's theory of mutationism: "balanced lethals" allowed the accumulation of recessive mutations, and rare crossing over events resulted in the sudden expression of these hidden traits. In other words, de Vries's experiments were explainable by the Mendelian-chromosome theory. Muller's work was increasingly focused on mutation rate and lethal mutations. In 1918, Morgan, short-handed because many of his students and assistants were drafted for the U.S. entry into World War I, convinced Muller to return to Columbia to teach and to expand his experimental program.[9]

At Columbia, Muller and his collaborator and longtime friend Edgar Altenburg continued the investigation of lethal mutations. The primary method for detecting such mutations was to measure the sex ratios of the offspring of female flies. They predicted the ratio would vary from 1:1 due to recessive mutations on the X chromosome, which would be expressed only in males (which lacked the functional allele on a second X chromosome). Muller found a strong temperature dependence in mutation rate, leading him to believe that spontaneous mutation was the dominant mode (and to initially discount the role of external factors such as ionizing radiation or chemical agents). In 1920, Muller and Altenburg coauthored a seminal paper in Genetics on "modifier genes" that determine the size of mutant Drosophila wings. In 1919, Muller made the important discovery of a mutant (later found to be a chromosomal inversion) that appeared to suppress crossing over, which opened up new avenues in mutation-rate studies. However, his appointment at Columbia was not continued; he accepted an offer from the University of Texas and left Columbia after the summer of 1920.[10]

Muller taught at the University of Texas from 1920 until 1932. Soon after returning to Texas, he married mathematics professor Jessie Marie Jacobs, whom he had courted previously. In his early years at Texas, Muller's Drosophila work was slow going; the data from his mutation rate studies were difficult to interpret. In 1923, he began using radium and X-rays,[11] but the relationship between radiation and mutation was difficult to measure because such radiation also sterilized the flies. In this period, he also became involved with eugenics and human genetics. He carried out a study of twins separated at birth that seemed to indicate a strong hereditary component of I.Q. Muller was critical of the new directions of the eugenics movement (such as anti-immigration), but was hopeful about the prospects for positive eugenics.[12][13] In 1932, at the Third International Eugenics Congress, Muller gave a speech and stated, "eugenics might yet perfect the human race, but only in a society consciously organized for the common good".[14]

Discovery of X-ray mutagenesis[edit]

In 1926, a series of major breakthroughs began. In November, Muller carried out two experiments with varied doses of X-rays, the second of which used the crossing over suppressor stock ("ClB") he had found in 1919. A clear, quantitative connection between radiation and lethal mutations quickly emerged. Muller's discovery created a media sensation after he delivered a paper entitled "The Problem of Genetic Modification" at the Fifth International Congress of Genetics in Berlin; it would make him one of the better-known public intellectuals of the early 20th century. By 1928, others had replicated his dramatic results, expanding them to other model organisms, such as wasps and maize. In the following years, he began publicizing the likely dangers of radiation exposure in humans (such as physicians who frequently operate X-ray equipment or shoe sellers who radiated their customers' feet).[15]

His lab grew quickly, but it shrank again following the onset of the Great Depression. Especially after the stock market crash, Muller was increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of capitalism. Some of his visiting lab members were from the USSR, and he helped edit and distribute an illegal leftist student newspaper, The Spark. It was a difficult period for Muller both scientifically and personally; his marriage was falling apart, and he was increasingly dissatisfied with his life in Texas. Meanwhile, the waning of the eugenics movement, ironically hastened by his own work pointing to the previously ignored connections between environment and genetics, meant that his ideas on the future of human evolution had reduced impact in the public sphere.[16]

Work in Europe[edit]

In September 1932, Muller moved to Berlin to work with the Russian expatriate geneticist Nikolay Timofeeff-Ressovsky; a trip intended as a limited sabbatical stretched into an eight-year, five-country journey. In Berlin, he met two physicists who would later be significant to the biology community: Niels Bohr and Max Delbrück. The Nazi movement was precipitating the rapid emigration of scientific talent from Germany, and Muller was particularly opposed to the politics of National Socialism. The FBI was investigating Muller because of his involvement with The Spark, so he chose instead to go to the Soviet Union (an environment better suited to his political beliefs). In 1933, Muller and his wife reconciled, and their son David E. Muller and she moved with Hermann to Leningrad. There, at the Institute of Genetics, he imported the basic equipment for a Drosophila lab—including the flies—and set up shop. The institute was moved to Moscow in 1934, and Muller and his wife were divorced in 1935.[17]

In the USSR, Muller supervised a large and productive lab, and organized work on medical genetics. Most of his work involved further explorations of genetics and radiation. There he completed his eugenics book, Out of the Night, the main ideas of which dated to 1910.[18] By 1936, however, Joseph Stalin's repressive policies and the rise of Lysenkoism was making the USSR an increasingly problematic place to live and work. Muller and many of the Russian genetics community did what they could to oppose Trofim Lysenko and his Larmarckian evolutionary theory, but Muller was soon forced to leave the Soviet Union after Stalin read a translation of his eugenics book and was "displeased by it, and...ordered an attack prepared against it."[19]

Muller, with about 250 strains of Drosophila, moved to University of Edinburgh in September 1937, after brief stays in Madrid and Paris. In 1938, with war on the horizon, he began looking for a permanent position back in the United States. He also began courting Dorothea "Thea" Kantorowicz, a German refugee; they were married in May 1939. The Seventh International Congress on Genetics was held in Edinburgh later that year; Muller wrote a "Geneticists' Manifesto"[20] in response to the question: "How could the world's population be improved most effectively genetically?" He also engaged in a debate with the perennial genetics gadfly Richard Goldschmidt over the existence of the gene, for which little direct physical evidence existed at the time.[21]

Later career[edit]

Muller's house in Bloomington, Indiana

When Muller returned to the United States in 1940, he took an untenured research position at Amherst College, in the department of Otto C. Glaser. After the U.S. entry into World War II, his position was extended indefinitely and expanded to include teaching. His Drosophila work in this period focused on measuring the rate of spontaneous (as opposed to radiation-induced) mutations. Muller's publication rate decreased greatly in this period, from a combination of lack of lab workers and experimentally challenging projects. However, he also worked as an adviser in the Manhattan Project (though he did not know that was what it was), as well as a study of the mutational effects of radar. Muller's appointment was ended after the 1944–1945 academic year, and despite difficulties stemming from his socialist political activities, he found a position as professor of zoology at Indiana University.[22] Here, he lived in a Dutch Colonial Revival house in Bloomington's Vinegar Hill neighborhood.[23]

In 1946, Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, "for the discovery that mutations can be induced by X-rays". Genetics, and especially the physical and physiological nature of the gene, was becoming a central topic in biology, and X-ray mutagenesis was a key to many recent advances, among them George Beadle and Edward Tatum's work on Neurospora that established in 1941 the one gene-one enzyme hypothesis.[24] In Muller's Nobel Prize lecture, he argued that no threshold dose of radiation existed that did not produce mutagenesis, which led to the adoption of the linear no-threshold model of radiation on cancer risks.[25]

The Nobel Prize, in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, focused public attention on a subject Muller had been publicizing for two decades - the dangers of radiation. In 1952, nuclear fallout became a public issue; since Operation Crossroads, more and more evidence had been leaking out about radiation sickness and death caused by nuclear testing. Muller and many other scientists pursued an array of political activities to defuse the threat of nuclear war. With the Castle Bravo fallout controversy in 1954, the issue became even more urgent.[citation needed] In 1955, Muller was one of 11 prominent intellectuals to sign the Russell–Einstein Manifesto, the upshot of which was the first 1957 Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, which addressed the control of nuclear weapons.[26][27] He was a signatory (with many other scientists) of the 1958 petition to the United Nations, calling for an end to nuclear weapons testing, which was initiated by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling.[26]

Muller's opinions on the effect of radiation on mutagenesis were used by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring,[28] however, his opinions have been criticized by some scientists; geneticist James F. Crow called Muller's view "alarmist" and wrote that it created in the public "an irrational fear of low-level radiation relative to other risks".[29][30] It has been argued that Muller's opinion was not supported by studies on the survivors of the atomic bombings, or by research on mice,[31] and that he ignored another study that contradicted the linear no-threshold model he supported, thereby affecting the formulation of policy that favored this model.[25]

Muller was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1942 and the American Philosophical Society in 1947[32][33] Muller was awarded the Linnean Society of London's Darwin-Wallace Medal in 1958 and the Kimber Genetics Award of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, of which he was a member, in 1955.[34][35] He served as president of the American Humanist Association from 1956 to 1958.[36] The American Mathematical Society selected him as its Gibbs Lecturer for 1958.[37] He retired in 1964.[38] The Drosophila basic units of inheritance, their chromosomal arms, are named "Muller elements" in Muller's honor.[39]

H. J. Muller and science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin were first cousins once removed; his father (Hermann J. Muller Sr.) and her father's mother (Johanna Muller Kroeber) were siblings, the children of Nicholas Müller, who immigrated to the United States in 1848, and at that time dropped the umlaut from his name. Another cousin was Herbert J. Muller, whose grandfather Otto was another son of Nicholas and a sibling of Hermann Sr. and Johanna.[40]

Personal life[edit]

Muller is survived by his daughter, Helen J. Muller, now a professor emerita at the University of New Mexico, who has a daughter, Mala Htun, also a professor at the University of New Mexico. His son, David E. Muller, professor emeritus of mathematics and computer science at the University of Illinois and at New Mexico State University, died in 2008 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. David's mother was Jessie Jacobs Muller Offermann (1890–1954), Hermann's first wife. Helen's mother was Dorothea Kantorowicz Muller (1909–1986), Hermann's second wife, who came to the U.S. in 1940 as a German Jewish refugee.[3] He had a brief affair with Milly Bennett.[41]

Notable former students[edit]

Former postdoctoral fellows
Worked in lab as undergraduates


  • Herman Joseph Muller, Modern Concept of Nature (SUNY Press, 1973). ISBN 0-87395-096-8.
  • Herman Joseph Muller, Man's Future Birthright (SUNY Press, 1973). ISBN 0-87395-097-6.
  • H. J. Muller, Out of the Night: A Biologist's View of the Future (Vanguard Press, 1935).
  • H. J. Muller, Studies in Genetics: The Selected Papers of H. J. Muller (Indiana University Press, 1962).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pontecorvo, G. (1968). "Hermann Joseph Muller. 1890-1967". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 14: 348–389. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1968.0015. S2CID 61317945.
  2. ^ Carlson, Elof Axel (1981). Genes, radiation, and society: the life and work of H. J. Muller. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-1304-9.
  3. ^ a b c d Elof Axel Carlson (2009). "Hermann Joseph Muller 1890–1967" (PDF). National Academy of Sciences.
  4. ^ "Hermann J. Muller – Biographical". NobelPrice.org.
  5. ^ http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/muller-hermann.pdf[bare URL PDF]
  6. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 17–37
  7. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 37–69
  8. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 70–90; for more on the culture and norms of the fly lab, see Kohler, Robert E. (1994). Lords of the fly: Drosophila genetics and the experimental life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-45063-6..
  9. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 91–108
  10. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 109–119
  11. ^ Hamilton, Vivien (2016). "The Secrets of Life: Historian Luis Campos resurrects radium's role in early genetics research". Distillations. 2 (2): 44–45. Retrieved 22 March 2018.
  12. ^ Pontecorvo, G. (December 1968). "Hermann Joseph Muller". Annual Review of Genetics. 2 (1): 1–10. doi:10.1146/annurev.ge.02.120168.000245. ISSN 0066-4197. Retrieved 9 March 2023.
  13. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 120–140
  14. ^ "The Eugenics Crusade What's Wrong with Perfect?". PBS. October 16, 2018. Retrieved November 4, 2018. There is no scientific basis for the conclusion that the socially lower class have genetically inferior intellectual equipment. Certain slum districts of our cities are factories for criminality among those who happen to be born in them. Under these circumstances, it is society, not the individual, which is the real criminal and which stands to be judged. Eugenics might yet perfect the human race, but only in a society consciously organized for the common good.
  15. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 141–164
  16. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 165–183
  17. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 184–203
  18. ^ H. J. Muller, Out of the Night: A Biologist's View of the Future (New York: Vangard, 1935), p. v.
  19. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 204–234; quotation from p 233, correspondence from Muller to Julian Huxley, March 9, 1937
  20. ^ "The 'Geneticists Manifesto'," originally published in Journal of Heredity, 1939, 30:371–373; reprinted in H. J. Muller, Studies in Genetics: The Selected Papers of H. J. Muller (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962), pp. 545–548.
  21. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 235–273
  22. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 274–288
  23. ^ Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory. City of Bloomington Interim Report. Bloomington: City of Bloomington, 2004-04, 90.
  24. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 304–318
  25. ^ a b Calabrese, E. J. (30 June 2011). "Muller's Nobel lecture on dose–response for ionizing radiation:ideology or science?" (PDF). Archives of Toxicology. 85 (4): 1495–1498. doi:10.1007/s00204-011-0728-8. PMID 21717110. S2CID 4708210. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 August 2017. Retrieved 30 December 2011.
  26. ^ a b John Bellamy Foster (2009). The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet, Monthly Review Press, New York, pp. 71–72.
  27. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 336–379.
  28. ^ Carson, Rachel Louise (1962). Silent spring. pp. 209, 211, 279. ISBN 978-0-14-118494-4. OCLC 934630161.
  29. ^ James F. Crow (1987). "Muller, Dobzhansky, and Overdominance". Journal of the History of Biology. 20 (3): 351–380. doi:10.1007/bf00139460. S2CID 83821609.
  30. ^ "Calabrese says mistake led to adopting the LNT model in toxicology". Phys.org. January 23, 2017.
  31. ^ Les leçons inattendues d'Hiroshima par Bertrand Jordan – SPS n° 308, avril 2014
  32. ^ "Hermann Joseph Muller". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 2023-03-14.
  33. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 2023-03-14.
  34. ^ "Hermann Muller". www.nasonline.org. Retrieved 2023-03-14.
  35. ^ "Kimber Genetics Award". National Academy of Sciences.
  36. ^ "Past AHA Presidents". American Humanist Association.
  37. ^ Muller, H. J. (1958). "Evolution by mutation". Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 64 (4): 137–160. doi:10.1090/s0002-9904-1958-10191-3. MR 0095766.
  38. ^ "Hermann Muller and Mutations in Drosophila". U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Scientific and Technical Information. Archived from the original on 2 February 2015.
  39. ^ Schaeffer, SW (2018). "Muller "Elements" in Drosophila: How the Search for the Genetic Basis for Speciation Led to the Birth of Comparative Genomics". Genetics. 210 (1): 3–13. doi:10.1534/genetics.118.301084. PMC 6116959. PMID 30166445.
  40. ^ Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society, pp. 10–11
  41. ^ Kirschenbaum, Lisa A. (2015). International Communism and the Spanish Civil War. Cambridge University Press. p. 175. ISBN 978-1-107-10627-7. Retrieved January 16, 2020.

External links[edit]