Reconstructing E.B. Wilson's Dream

Exploring the H.J. Muller Collection at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library & Archives

by Anthony Dellureficio

On the night before his oral examination for his doctoral degree at Columbia University in 1915, Hermann J. Muller, future Nobel laureate in Physiology and Medicine for his work on x-ray induced mutations in Drosophila, was confronted by his mentor, E.B. Wilson.

Wilson was the head of the Columbia Biology Department at the time, and, although Muller had spent much of his time at Columbia working in Morgan’s fly lab, it was to Wilson that he turned when he needed help. Muller had already accepted a position at Rice University working with Julian Huxley. In an attempt to calm his nervous student, Wilson related a dream he had 34 years earlier, the night before his oral examination for his doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins University.

As Wilson explained, his dream began with him standing at a podium before a blackboard and behind a set of curtains, anxiously awaiting his oral examination. As the curtains were drawn, his examiners were revealed to him. In the front row of the auditorium sat Thomas Huxley, Ernest Haeckel and Charles Darwin.

Huxley, Haeckel, and Darwin

Wilson began, "I have a very simple thesis to present… I have the solution to the question 'What is life?’"

He picked up a piece of chalk, walked up to the blackboard behind him, and drew a large triangle. He labeled the sides A, B, and C. He then drew a smaller triangle next to it, labeling its sides a, b, and c. He then turned around and exclaimed, "That is the secret of life!" With that, Charles Darwin took off his hat, threw it in the air, and shouted, "Huzzah! You’ve done it, my boy!" All three examiners proceeded to approach the podium to congratulate him.

H.J. Muller recounted the story years later to former students Carl Sagan and Elof Carlson at the Top of the Mark bar in the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. (Sagan had worked in Muller's lab in the summer of 1952 while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and Carlson was one of Muller's last graduate students at Indiana University.)

Muller remarked that the most astounding thing to him was E.B. Wilson’s intuitive understanding of the underlying importance of complementarity in life. He obviously had no way of knowing that years after his dream, complementary strands of nucleotides would forever change our view of the design of life.

This anecdote was partially reconstructed from the diaries of Elof Carlson, which currently reside in the archives at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This story has been passed anecdotally from E.B. Wilson to H.J. Muller and again many times since through a long chain of scientists. Fortunately, Elof Carlson had the forethought to write the story as an entry in his diary in 1963. By using archival materials in conjunction with secondary sources, historians are able to unravel the changes which naturally develop as an anecdote is passed down, and to bring out the closest approximation of the original story.

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In 2004, Dr. Elof Axel Carlson, a graduate student of Hermann J. Muller’s at Indiana University, a geneticist, and a historian of genetics, donated his collection of Muller papers to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives.

He began gathering the material in this collection while studying with Muller, although he obtained the bulk of the collection while conducting research for Genes, Radiation and Society, his biography of Muller.

He received materials from Dorothea Muller (the second wife of Muller), from friends and correspondents of Muller, and by copying materials from collections at the Lilly Library at Indiana University and other libraries. He also took some reprints from the Davenport and Demerec reprint collections, currently housed in the Banbury Center at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

David E. Muller, son of Hermann J. Muller, donated his collection to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives, as well, in April 2005. The collection consists primarily of about 470 items of personal correspondence between 1900 and 1945 collected and saved by David Muller’s mother (Hermann’s first wife), Jessie Marie Jacobs Muller Offermann.

David Muller donated this collection with the letters, photographs, and other material arranged chronologically in binders with numbered post-it notes to accompany each item of correspondence.

These two donations make up the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives Hermann J. Muller Collection. Materials in this collection span 1900-1982 and consist of correspondence, manuscripts, reprints, memorabilia, and photographs.

Of particular note is his correspondence with Solomon Levit and Israel Agol, Russian students of his who were executed by the Soviet government during the purge of Western science. Agol had a fascination with cars. He discusses his desire for an American automobile in letters with Muller and Carlos Offermann (the graduate student Muller brought to Russia from Texas).

Included in our collection is a letter from Muller to Offermann requesting supplies for Offermann to bring with him to Russia. After the normal assortment of vials, microscopes, and fly stocks, the list ends with a request for him to ship his V-8 Ford.

The car had to be donated to the state and became property of the Institute for Genetics in Moscow, and Vavilov, director of the institute was fond of bring out the car and saying, "At the Institute for Genetics, for Russians, we have Russia, for Americans, we have America!" Also notable is Muller's correspondence with his first wife and son during Muller’s work in Europe in the 1930s.

The Muller Collection contains manuscripts, some which were published and some which never were. Among the interesting manuscripts in the collection are "Evolution by Mutation," (the John Willard Gibbs Lecture, 1958 which had been thrown in the waste basket by Muller but was salvaged by Elof Carlson one evening after Muller left the lab), and a handwritten notebook for a classical genetics textbook by Muller and Edgar Altenberg from 1912.

The book was not published at the time because Morgan published his own textbook on classical genetics while they were working on theirs. Tucked into the notebook was Muller's NY public library card from 1912. Rather than put the names of the books he checked out, the librarians put the Dewey Decimal number on the back. After a little searching, the books on his card were identified as a book on the origins of American Democracy and Ibsen plays.

The collection contains a nearly full run of Muller reprints including his Dominance of Economics over Eugenics, which derived from a talk he planned to give at the 3rd International Congress of Eugenics, at the American Museum of Natural History.

One of the primary organizers, Charles Davenport (president of the American Eugenics Society and founder of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory) invited Muller to speak. After reading Muller's manuscript, however, Davenport significantly shortened the length of time given to Muller.

The ideas Muller laid out for the development of a practical eugenics program differed from those of the American Eugenics Society, particularly his emphasis on "positive eugenics" and the importance of a classless society as a precursor to a eugenics program. "Positive eugenics" was Muller’s theory which promoted the perpetuation of good genes rather than the removal of bad genes from society ("negative eugenics").

There are a number of original personal photographs in the Muller Collection. Of note is a photograph taken by Muller in the 1920s at Erwin Baur's farm near Berlin with handwritten identification by Muller on the front, Prof. Baur's son, Mrs. Baur, Prof. Nachtsheim, Prof. Goldschmidt, Prof. Baur, Dr. von Stein, Dr. H[...], Prof. Altenberg, and with a handwritten note on back, taken at the farm of Germany's best geneticist - Prof. Baur - near Berlin. (All 5 of these German biologists have done excellent work.)

Erwin Baur was a theorist whose Menschliche Erblichkeitslehre and Rassanhygiene, co-authored by Eugen Fischer and Fritz Lenz, contributed to the Nazi eugenics movement. Muller worked on chapters of a manuscript on the history of Drosophila studies for Baur. It was left incomplete upon the death of Baur in 1933. Richard Goldschmidt was a prominent German-born American geneticist. As a Jewish scientist, he was forced to leave Germany by the Nazis.

Anthony Dellureficio is the James D. Watson Special Collections Archivist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archives. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a double major in the History of Science, Medicine & Technology and Italian Literature. He obtained his M.L.S. from the University of Maryland in 2005. He lives in Oyster Bay, New York, and he can be reached here.

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