Hermann J. Muller: IU Nobelist

Nobel Prize Research

Muller to S. C. Hartland about Stadler

In this letter to the geneticist S. C. Harland on the occasion of Stadler's death, Muller expresses his sentiments at the goodwill Lewis Stadler always showed over Muller's slight incidental priority. Important individuals involved in radiation genetics before Muller include the botanists Albert Blakeslee and C. Stuart Gager.

In one of those weird coincidences of science history, the maize geneticist Lewis J. Stadler published independent work establishing the mutagenic effects of radiation in corn and barley just a few months later. While there had long been a suggestive connection between radiation and mutation, no one had done anything with the precision, scope, effectiveness, or degree of confirmation of what Muller had done. Practically every mutant variation of Drosophila that had been painstakingly found in the past 15 years could be found anew among Muller’s X-rayed flies. 

Hermann J. Muller, Pete Oliver, and Theophilus Shicken Painter at work in a lab at the University of Texas, Austin

Starting from Muller on the right and moving clockwise, this 1928 photo contains Muller, Pete Oliver, Theophilus Painter, and Wilson S. Stone at work in the Drosophila lab at the University of Texas, Austin

The implications of his research were recognized immediately by the community of geneticists. Those who attended his presentation at the 1927 International Genetics Congress in Berlin felt they were witnessing science history in the making. Muller’s work, and likely Stadler’s as well, initiated a new era of radiation genetics focused on gene mutations. Scientists across the world, including former colleagues such as Calvin Bridges, began to work with X-rays. Muller brought his colleagues at Texas, the embryologist John T. Patterson and the cytologist (a biologist focused on cells) Theophilus Painter, into radiation genetics research.

Never one to shirk public engagement, in addition to advancing his research, Muller also began to speak openly about the dangers of radiation. This made him few friends among the community of physicians, as the clinical use of X-rays was extraordinarily widespread at the time. His efforts to bring attention to the dangers of radiation become an even more prominent part of his life later in his career. 

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