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Report of BSHR Annual Lecture 6 February 2023

Report by Dr Arpan K Banerjee Trustee and Council member and Former Chair Brit Soc Hist Radiology (BSHR)

The venue of this year’s British Society for the History of Radiology annual guest lecture on the 6 February 2023 was again the magnificent Governors' Hall at St Thomas’ Hospital, London. Geoff Meggitt a distinguished retired medical physicist delivered an illustrated talk entitled ‘Radiation Radicalism and Race :The Science and Politics of Hermann Muller’. Some readers may be aware that Geoff Meggitt wrote a well received biography of Muller in 2016.

The lecture started by setting the background to evolution with references to Darwin and Mendel. Muller the controversial scientist led a remarkable, often peripatetic, life. Muller born in the USA was of German origin and studied biology initially at Columbia University U.S.A. His real passion was genetics. The contributions of Thomas Morgan and his team in the now famous fly lab fired Muller’s enthusiasm and he became interested in Drosophila genetics and joined Morgan’s team to do research and co-wrote the book The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity in 1915. Julian Huxley the famous biologist found him a job at the Rice Institute and Muller completed his PHD in 1916. He returned to Columbia in 1918 from where he moved to Texas.

In 1926 he made his famous discoveries of X-ray mutagenesis working with radiation which resulted in his Nobel Prize in 1946. His experiments with the crossing over suppressor stock(CIB) showed a relationship between the radiation dose and lethal mutations. In his Nobel Lecture he argued that the dose response curve for radiation induced tumours was linear with no threshold.

Muller’s time of exile in Europe in Germany, Russia, and Spain was described, his friendship with Edgar Altenberg was mentioned and his leftist leanings and controversies with his opinions on the Russian Lysenko were included. He even managed to anger Stalin.

Muller also had an interest in the controversial subject of eugenics and this topic was not given short shrift with a mention of his 1910 Peithologian (debating society) Lecture in Columbia where his ideas were first expressed.

He seemed to have struggled to get tenure all his life but eventually settled in Indiana, USA.

Muller was a complex character, brilliant prolific yet controversial scientist whose contributions and life were beautifully presented in this lecture and a lively audience debate at the end of the lecture concluded the evening.


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