Hermann Joseph Muller was an American geneticist, who won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the production of mutations by means of X-ray irradiation. During his career, he focused on understanding genetics and gene mutations, thereby, laying a conceptual and empirical foundation for modern molecular biology. He was interested in pursuing science as a child and later grew interested in studying genetics in college. After completing his Ph.D., he began his career as a teacher as well as a researcher and continued both the professions throughout his life. His studies were primarily focused on understanding genetic structure and developing theories as well as identifying processes to induce mutations artificially. His work on the genetic and physiological consequences of radiation exposure earned him the Nobel Prize in 1946. Hermann Joseph Muller continuously strived to educate people on the dangers of radiation. He had very strong political beliefs and an argumentative character, and therefore had to face several difficulties in his career.
Childhood & Early Life
Hermann Joseph Muller was born on 21 December 1890, in New York City. His father, Hermann Joseph Muller, Sr. was an artisan and his mother’s name was Frances Lyons.
He received his school education from the public school in Harlem and later in the Morris High School in Bronx. He excelled in studies and was also known to be inclined towards science from a young age. While at school, he along with his classmates had formed a science club.
He was the recipient of the Cooper-Hewitt scholarship in 1907 that allowed him to join the Columbia College at the age of 16. Even as a student he worked part time jobs to support himself.
During his first year in college, his interest in biology grew and after reading R.H. Lock’s book on genetics (1906) he began focusing on genetics, by considering gene mutations and natural selection as the foundation for evolution. He was guided by American geneticist and zoologist E.B. Wilson.
While in college, he founded a biology club and advocated eugenics; a philosophy that aimed to promote genetic quality of human population.
He graduated with a B.A degree in 1910, and continued studies at Columbia College for postgraduation studies. He received a teaching fellowship in physiology at the Cornell Medical College the following year and therefore began teaching along with pursuing research on genetics.
During this time he was involved in the Drosophila work at Thomas Hunt Morgan’s genetic lab and was able to follow the research though he could not conduct independent research on his own until 1912. Here, his contributions to the study were primarily theoretical in nature like hypothesis, explanations and ideas.
All the work and findings in connection with the Drosophila study was published, in 1915, as a book titled ‘The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity’.
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After completing his Ph.D. he immediately joined the William Marsh Rice Institute, Houston, in 1915, where he taught several biological subjects and pursued studies in mutation. He remained at the institute until 1918.
Between 1918 and 1920, he was an instructor at the Columbia College after which he joined the University of Texas in Austin as Associate Professor. He later got promoted to the post of professor and remained at the university until 1932.
The period of his career while working at the University of Texas is regarded as the most productive phase in his career. It was during this phase that he studied in detail about the methods of quantitative mutation.
He described the gene to comprise the foundation of life as well as of evolution as it possesses the quality of recreating its own mutations. He formulated the primary principles of spontaneous gene mutation during this time.
His extensive study on the subject and understanding of frequency and processes involved in mutations led to the experimental initiation of genetic mutations with the aid of X-Rays, in 1926. He was able to establish that the mutations in genes were a result of changes in isolated genes and chromosome breakages. With this discovery, he was known to be an internationally acclaimed geneticist.
In 1932, owing to personal stress he suffered a nervous breakdown and later spent a year at the Oskar Vogt’s Brain Research Institute in Berlin. While at the institute, he worked with N. W. Timofeev-Ressovsky studying different physical models to explain genetic mutations.
With Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, Hermann Joseph Muller decided to leave Germany as he was a firm believer of socialism and therefore shifted to the Soviet Union.
Between 1933 and 1937, he worked at the Academy of Sciences at Leningrad and Moscow. Here he concentrated on understanding the structure of gene, cytogenetics and radiation genetics. However, with the increasing Lysenko anti- genetics movement he joined the Institute of Animal Genetics affiliated to the University of Edinburgh in 1937 and remained there for three years.
Between 1940 and 1945, he engaged in teaching as well as research at the Amherst College in USA. While at this institution, he successfully completed experiments demonstrating the correlation of spontaneous mutations and ageing.
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In 1945, he was offered professorship in the Department of Zoology at Indiana University in Bloomington. Here he devoted time to analyze mutations that were induced by radiation in order to conduct gene analysis and understand its biological effects.
He served as the President of the 8th International Congress of Genetics in 1948. He retired from Indiana University in 1964 and joined the Institute for Advanced Learning in the Medical Sciences, in California, where he worked for a year.
He made continuous efforts to spread awareness regarding the threats faced by accumulation of mutations in the human gene pool due to radiation and industrial processes. He took initiative in creating general awareness and used to actively participate in discussions encouraging processes for natural selection in the modern society.
Hermann Joseph Muller was a renowned geneticist whose works in genetics earned him much recognition. He demonstrated genetic mutations and hereditary transformations that can be caused by X-Rays. He was also successful in discovering artificially induced mutations in genes and its destructive effects.
Awards & Achievements
In 1927, he received the Newcomb Cleveland Prize of the American Association for the Advancement for his paper on the ‘Effects of X-Radiation on Genes and Chromosomes’. In 1946, he was he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for the discovery of the production of mutations by means of X-ray irradiation".
In 1958, he was honored with the Linnean Society of London's Darwin-Wallace Medal.
Personal Life & Legacy
Hermann Joseph Muller married mathematician, Jessie Mary Jacobs, in 1923, and the couple had a son named David. E. Muller. Their relationship was strained and the couple divorced in 1935.
In 1939, he married Dorothea Kantorowicz and the couple had a daughter named Helen. J. Muller.
He died on 5 April 1967, at Indianapolis, in U.S.A. He was 76 years old at the time of his death.