Hermann Joseph Muller - Nobel Prize Winner and American Geneticist

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Hermann Joseph Muller - Personal Life and Education

Hermann Joseph Muller was an American geneticist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1946 “for the discovery that mutations can be induced by x-rays”. He was the first to demonstrate a connection between radiation and genetic mutations, and wrote about the possible dangers of radiation exposure. He was also a recipient of the 1958 Darwin-Wallace Medal from the Linnean Society of London. Muller was active politically and held Communist beliefs.

Born on 21 December 1890 in New York City, Muller was educated at public schools in Harlem and the Bronx. An excellent student with a definite interest in science, he won the Cooper-Hewitt Scholarship to study at Columbia University in 1907. It was here that he became interested in biology. He read books by, amongst others, R. H. Lock and Jacques Loeb, studied under E. B. Wilson, and founded and participated in a biology club with his friends Altenburg, Sturtevant and Bridges.

Thomas Hunt Morgan was carrying out his Drosophila research work at Columbia at the time, and Muller became interested in his work. After getting his B.A. degree in 1910, he continued graduate studies at Columbia and took to dropping in at the Drosophila lab to follow the research work.

In 1911-1912, he studied metabolism at Cornell Medical School; first on a scholarship, and then a teaching fellowship in physiology. Moving back to Columbia to take up a teaching assistantship between 1912-1915, he joined the Drosophila research formally and, while he did not conduct any experiments himself, he offered theoretical ideas.

Muller was married twice and had one son. Hermann Muller died on 5 April 1967.

Hermann Joseph Muller - Scientific Career and Research

At different times, Hermann Muller held teaching positions in Biology and Zoology at Columbia University, Cornell University (1911-1912), the William Marsh Rice Institute (now Rice University) (1915-1916), the University of Texas (1920-1932), Amherst College (1940-1945) and Indiana University (1946).

He carried on his Drosophila research work in conjunction with his teaching work. In 1918, he returned to Columbia to work with Thomas Hunt Morgan, and studied mutations in Drosophila with his friend Edgar Altenburg. The two discovered the role of modifier genes in influencing wing size in mutant Drosophila and published a paper on this in 1920.

Muller next studied the effects of radium and X-rays on Drosophila and measured mutation rates brought on by radiation exposure. In 1926, he published a paper (‘The Problem of Genetic Modification’) on the connection between radiation and mutations, and warned about the dangers of radiation exposure on humans. This paper, when read at the Fifth International Congress of Genetics in Berlin, caused a stir and brought him international recognition.

The Depression years were tough on Muller and his lab, and he became interested in communism. He supported a leftist student paper ‘The Spark’ and this later got him into trouble with the FBI.

Further Genetics Research

In 1932, Muller moved to Berlin to work with the Russian geneticist Nikolay Timofeff-Ressovsky. The following year, disenchanted by both the Nazi movement that was then gaining force in Germany and the FBI’s investigation of his communist sympathies, he moved to the USSR. He worked at the Institute of Genetics in Leningrad and then in Moscow, conducting research on Drosophila, on medical genetics and on radiation effect and genetics. He wrote a book on eugenics ‘Out of the Night’ in 1934, which did not make him popular with Stalin and the Lysenko movement, and he soon left the USSR and moved back to Europe.

He spent time in Madrid, Paris and Edinburgh, attended the Seventh International Congress on Genetics in Edinburgh, and then returned to the USA just before the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, he continued his Drosophila research, and worked as an advisor on the Manhattan Project as well as studying the mutational effects of radar.

His Nobel Prize win in 1946 focussed attention on the dangers of nuclear fall-out. He signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955.