MEETING # 1519
MARCH 18, 1993
Tales Told Out of School:
Stories About Scientists I Have Known
by Charles D. Howell Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public
An account of some striking episodes in
the process of scientific inquiry, including scientific failure, inspiratonal change of
life's aims, spectacular frustrations, tenacity and success in spite of frustration.
Two of the characters are world-famous:
Rachel Carson, and Nobelist Hermann J.Muller.
Biography of the Author
The author, Charles D. Howell, was born in
1910 in the slate hills of Pennsylvania, and brought up in Brooklyn, N.Y. He received his
formal education at Oberlin College in Ohio, at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore,
MD., and at the University of California at Riverside, CA. Much of his education, however,
came from observant farmers who tilled the soil and found things he never had seen before in his life, and from his own mistakes and wisdom and mistakes of his students, and
He taught for 46 years in various colleges
and Universities in the United States, retiring after 25 years at the University of
Redlands. His main curiosity was to find out what things were and what made them work.
This took him from Zoology, primarily into physio logy, but also dealt with function in
embryology, genetics, and bacteriology and made him study anatomy, evolution, and
entomology, and even astronomy, but not astrology..
In retirement he became an entomologist,
and has served since February 1977, as Curator of Entomology at the San Bernardino County
Museum here in Redlands.
TALES TOLD OUT OF SCHOOL
by Charles D. Howell
The stories I am telling here are tales
that have haunted me in some way since they occu rred. That I relate them merely indicates
that they influenced my comprehension of human nature, and human being. It also means that
in some sense I mourned the sadness where tragedies are represented, and rejoiced when
justice seems to have been done. First I shall relate the story of Dr.Ulrich. This was in
1933. To introduce it I must first explain an old idea in biology, long believed
impossible, but nevertheless fought over even to this day. It is the idea of the
inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Actually it was one of the first theories
expounded to explain evolution when it was first observed. For example, in the early 19th
century the famous zoologist, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine De Monet Lamarck, observed the
changes in animal species in the natural and geological world, and proposed that it came
about by animals using certain senses or muscles more than others, and by using them
causing them to improve. The developed, or improved qualities were then passed on to their
offspring. This would obviously produce better organs generation after generation.
There is a certain natural logic in this
so that it is not surpising people inherently feel that such a process ought to be true.
How nice to believe that if you improved yourself your children would be better because of
it. The biological challenge to this came with Weismann's discovery that the germ cells,
which become eggs and sperm, are set aside, early in life of organisms, in a germ line
that undergoes a separate development from all the other so-called body cells. Removing
them results in sterility but not death.
Furthermore, no connection exists for body
cells to send their improved qualities, after improvement, back to change the germ line.
In spite of Weismann's Principle of the Germ Plasm, many iconoclastic scientists, have
sought to prove the inheritance of acquired characters..
Dr. Ulrich came to The Johns Hopkins
University after retiring, with severe cardiac arrhythmia, from a position as head of a
department of physiology in a medical school. As a Ph.D. of the University, he could ask
for space to carry on research there, if there was space. There was, so he set to work. He
needed a student assistant, and offered the opportunity to train the assistant in the
techniques of brain surgery, and body electric phenomena.
Since I had shown interest in brain
functions, and had given seminar reports on studies of brain function in rats, I was
offered the chance to gain this experience. I accepted with enthusiasm.
The object of the work was to study
electrical impulses in the brain as they related to muscle functions of the limbs. By
modern standards our equipment was exceedingly crude. We did not have micro-electrodes,
nor modern automatic recording devices. This was about the time I first saw and
participated in the use of one of the first pioneer electrocardiographs at the Marine
Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. A description of this will illustrate our state
of technology at that time.
Today an electrocardiograph is a tiny box
of electronic recording material so balanced that it is little disturbed by irrelevant
phenomena. The pioneer electrocardiograph was so sensitive that it could not be installed
in an upstarts room of the laboratory, but had to be set on the solid foundation of the
concrete basement. Its size was huge. The apparatus consisted of a long table coverd with
batteries, wire, potentiometers, rheostats, capacitors, ending up with a beam of light
registering the cardiac potential through a slit on sensitive paper. Only four students
were allowed in the room with the professor. The machine was so sensitive that if you
waved your arm in the air, the machine would record it. One of us was hooked up to the
machine, and we literally held our collective breaths as the record of heart activity was
successfully made. Thus began great adventures in cardiac physiology.
The equipment Dr. Ulrich used was equally
primitive. I did the surgery, exposing the motor cortex of the cat brain, and he touched
electrodes to the brain as I moved a leg of the cat. From his research he had come to
believe that electrical impulses of the brain were positive if he moved a leg one way, and
negative if it was moved it in the opposite direction. He did this while holding the
electrodes in his own hands as he read the potentiometer.
He did not believe he needed a mechanical
device to hold the electrodes. His repeated results gave him great confidence. So he
permitted me to repeat the experiment on my own. I did this, after making a mechanical
holder for the electrodes. I could not verify his work, and saw that the response of the
potentiometer was influenced by the slightest wiggling of one's hands.
Dr. Ulrich announced his results to
physiological colleagues. Some were very skeptical of the results. He died soon after and
I was called on by the head of the Physiology Department of the Medical school, to report
exactly what had been done, including my personal work. At that point I was told the story
that lay behind the skepticism of this brilliant teacher's research.
Before he earned his doctorate in
physiology, Dr.Ulrich had worked in psychology, and had written a dissertation describing
the discovery of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This seems to have been
acceptable to psychologists, who perhaps favored environment influencing behavior. But now
he had to face an examining committee including faculty outside the field of psychology.
He related his discovery that when rats are dropped from a certain height onto their
backs, they right themselves always turning on the same side, say the left side. By using
electric shock training, he taught them to right themselves on the right side. After
breeding and training the rats for many generations, there appeared offspring which now
turned on the right side. He concluded that they had inherited the acquired
When he demonstrated to the committee, it
worked. But one of the biologists asked if he could test the rats, and when he did , he
could not verify the results. Again when Dr. Ulrich handled the rats it worked
perfectly. He permitted himself to be blindfolded, and repeated the experiment, not
knowing which rats he was handed. Blindfolded, he could not get the correct results. It
seems, by some unconscious signal, he could direct the rats to turn on the side which he
had preconceived they should turn. So ended one of the many attempts to prove the
inheritance of an acquired characteristic.
Applying this to his research on cat
brains, it appears he had made a similar subjective mistake in handling the electrodes. It
is believed he honestly did not know that he had manipulated the results. The powers of
the subconscious, of subjectivity, are hidden dangers in scientific investigation. Yet the
subconscioius may be a boon to creative conceptualization.
Roy Agner, M.D.
One of my happiest experiences was
teaching in a small southern college, Catawba College, in North Carolina. I had many G.I.s
among my stdents but remember especially Roy Agner. He pleased me by his exact mind. He
attempted to learn and remember everything he was taught. He meticulously corrected any
omissions on his examinations, and literally never made a mistake. He was far above the
above the student who crams before an exam, just to make a grade.
I was proud to have him as a student. He
was a very tall spare lad with a strong southern accent. I was surprised when he told me
he had been an engineer, and asked how he had come to change is career aims. The following
story came out of this. He volunteered for service and was assigned to the engineering
corps. On the battlefield he was wounded and severely disabled. Medics came by and passed
over him. As he lay there, helpless, two black G.I.s ambled over the field, and one
suddenly cried out ''This one's alive!" They immediately set about getting him to a
medical station, where he recovered from his wounds and was discharged.
At that point he decided to change his
career from engineering to medicine and to return to the south the pay his life debt to
black- people. He never knew who the two men were who saved him. But on completing his
premedical courses at Catawba College he entered Duke University Medical School, where he
earned a distinguished record.
He established his practice in Salisbury,
N.C., a small town of 8,000 population and is still there. At 68 years of age, in 1993, he
still loves the practice of medicine and has not been discouraged by attempts to sue him.
His career has not only been that of
practicing medicine, but creative medicine. He has published over 50 papers on original
observations and research on medicine and is still carrying on his mission.
Hermann J. Muller
While I was a graduate student I was
awarded summer scholarships to study at the famous Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods
Hole, Mass. One summer, part of my time was spent attending classes under Dr. Hermann J.
Muller who taught us the art of curve-fitting. He was a geneticist who, like most
geneticists, had a love of applying mathematics to biology.
Seveal years before I met him, he had made
some studies which turned out to be controversial. He had discovered the power of X-rays
to induce mutations in the germplasm of organisms. This seems so obvious now. It was not
so then. But when he advocated that we stop using X-rays in shoe stores to look at foot
bones, and claimed X-rays were being used often at too high voltages, especially in
dentistry, and proclaimed other dangers of X-rays, his ideas were attacked.
His research resulted not only in a more
careful look at X-ray technology, but greatest of all, it gave geneticists a tremendous
tool for increasing the frequency of mutations and chromosomal defects in laboratory
organisms, such as fruit flies and corn. This lead to a tremendous expansion of genetic
I did not see Dr. Muller again for eleven
years. Those were eleven years of considerable turmoil -- the days of McCarthyism. Dr.
Muller believed there were certain idealistic concepts in communism Unfortunately he
accepted a post in Russia as a geneticist, believing he, a Jew, was as well off there as
in America. He soon found this was not so, and realized he was actually becoming a
scienific prisoner in Russia.
He devised a way of getting his wife out
of the country by faking illness of her father. He then memorized all the data he wished
to make use of.later, destroyed his research notes and began a practice of taking his coat
and going for a walk every evening after work. When his practice was well-established, one
evening he took his coat and casually headed for the border, which he finally reached,
crossed, claimed asylum and succeeded in returning to join his wife in the U.S.A. Despite
his distinguished academic record, then he could not find a job, for McCarthy had publicly
labelled him a Communist. No University felt safe in hiring him. His academic friends in
America developed the ruse of hiring him at their Universities and giving him honoraria
for short-term services, passing him from University to University as long as the crisis
lasted. My second contact with him was when his turn came to be brought to the University
of Rochester where I was then teaching embryology.
He was assigned to give lectures on
genetics to the beginning class in Biology, where I was assigned to teach the classes in
Embryology. A constructive practice then at Rochester was for the faculty in beginning
biology to attend all the lectures and to discuss them at lunch time afterwards. So I
attended all his classes.
I was again struck by the simple clarity
with which Dr. Muller presented ideas. I remember vividly his lectures on probability in
genetics- presented to freshman students -- so clear, that they felt they now could
understand and enjoy the most complicated mathematics. I, too, gained insights listening
to him, and used them in my lectures on genetics all the rest of my teaching experience.
As you may gather, the university
professors helping Dr.Muller earn his meagre living were distinguished scientists, and
many, but not all, were Jewish. I knew some of them well. Thru one of these contacts
Dr.Muller was next offered an assistant professorship at the University of Indiana. At
least he had a salary, but at the lowest professorial rank.
Some time after that, the President of the
University of Indiana was sitting with his colleagues in the faculty club, I have been
told, when a newspaper was passed around. It reported the announcement of current Nobel
Prize winners. The President pointed at the headline and said to his neighbor, "What
a strange coincidence, we have a new faculty member with a similar name." The
colleague replied, ''It is not a similar name, it is the same person." The names was
Herman J. Muller, receiving the Nobel Prize for the distinguished basic work he
contributed to X-ray science, and Genetics. Very promptly, he was elevated to the rank of
Dr. Muller's experiences must have had a
profound impact on his philosophy of life. During his latter years he was as much
interested in improvement of society, as in material science. He peppered his public
lectures on scientific work with concerns about society, propounding a humanistic religion
of the goodness inherent in mankind.
Honors and awards given him include:
Cleveland Research Prize, A.A.A.S., 1927; Hon.D.Sc., University of Edinburgh, 1940; Nobel
Prize in Physiology and Medicine, 1946; Hon. D.Sc., Columbia University, 1949;
Distinguished Service Professor, Indiana University, 1953; Kimber Genetics Award, National
Academy of Sciences, 1955; Rudolph Virchow Society of New York, Medal, 1956; Darwin Medal
of the Linnean Society, 1958; Hon. D.Sc. University of Chicago, 1959; Hon. M.D., Jefferson
Medical College, 1963; Humanist of the year, 1963; City of Hope National Research Award,
Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
In September 1932, I entered the graduate
school in biology at the Johns Hopkins University in a rather green state of mind. I had
but the foggiest notion of the implications of working for Ph.D.. I was there because I
was literally penniless. I had entered college, four years earlier, with two possible
careers in mind -- the ministry or medicine. I had ideas that a teacher or writer could
influence the lives of people tremendously. But, becoming a scientist or college teacher
was still an unreal option.
After the self-analysis of four years of
college, I believed I lacked the outgoing type of personality that I admired in ministers.
After wise counsel with my advisors I gave up an offer of a scholarship to Union
Theological seminary, and the idea of the ministry. I accepted a judgement that I was
better at working with things than with people.
The penniless condition came from the
devastating and prolonged effects of the Great Depression. For this same reason, medical
school was impossible, and anyway, my interests had changed to a philosophical pursuit of
the meaning of "life", a desire to understand all about human behavior, to solve
all the problems of evolution, and to learn all about the mysterious life forms in ocean,
sea, earth and sky I had encountered in advanced biology classes. There were no jobs for a
major in biology who had no courses in Education, a subject completely beyond my
comprehension. Fortunately, I had personally met two scientists from Johns Hopkins who
were pioneers in the study of animal behavior, both were biologists, Professors Herbert S.
Jenning, and Samuel 0. Mast. I came to admire them greatly. We had a meeting of minds, and
they offered me financial security for the duration of my education - the beneficent sum
of $500 cash per year, with tuition and fees all paid. That seemed sufficient to sustain
me, and for three year it did. I needed no more, for I could live that cheaply during The
Depression, in Baltimore.
I was at first the single Graduate
Assistant in the year-long course in Comparative Anatomy and Embryology. I handled
laboratory classes of 60 to 80 students at a time, and enjoyed it. But the largest course
in the department was Introductory Biology. Most of the other graduate assistants worked
in that laboratory under a Miss Rachel Carson. I heard of her often, for the assistants
were unanimous in describing her high standards and the excellent training she gave them.
Later I learned she was only two years older than I, but her maturity lead me to believe
she was much older.
Later I worked with Rachel Carson when we
were both part-time instructors in Zoology at the University of Maryland School of
Dentistry and Pharmacy. Our correspondence continued after I moved to California. Earlier,
Rachel had earned a Master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University. She was doing
research on the biology of Chesapeake Bay, and decided to continue it for a doctorate
degree. Then we learned something we had not been aware of. If a person is awarded a
degree, he is automatically out of the "Faculty of Philosophy", the name for
candidates accepted for post-graduate degrees. Permission to work for a second degree is
not an automatic event, one has to reapply for entrance into the Faculty of Philosophy all
over again. To our consternation Rachel's application was rejected. The issue was much
discussed among us.
I may have been the only member of the
Faculty of Philosophy . brash enough to approach a member of the admissions committee
about this. The member was my own major professor. He was a proponent, stilted in Germanic
traditions of higher education, a self-assured and dignified man. When I inquired how the
committee could have turned down our favorite instructor, he replied without any trace of
humor, "Women do not have creativity equal to that of men". We could not change
I wondered, what made them think I had
more creativity? Her later publications certainly showed a sensitivity and originality of
deductions from old facts to reveal a creative mind. Her "Silent Spring", hit
the literary and scientific world in 1962 like a thunderclap. It resulted in The Johns
Hopkins University awarding her an honorary Doctorate. My major professor must have turned
over in his grave! I do not believe any member of the committee in 1962 even knew she had
ever applied for admission to The Faculty of Philosophy let alone been turned down.
"Silent Spring", was published
two years before Rachel died of cancer in April 1964. I could not at first believe its
thesis. The postulates of environmental destruction she dared to describe were
inconceivable to me. That was because I had been brought up to believe in the absolute
power of nature to recover from any human insult. Her other books were more comforting. In
them she cherished the beauty of nature and showed her deep love of it. Her studies of
devastation of marine life, had awakened her to the dangers of man's over-burdening the
earth with his waste products, leading to her final discomforting conclusions.
It took years for biologists and people in
many other walks of life to discover the picture was even worse than she painted. She was
unexpectedly a prophet, and not well-received in her own land. Happily she rceived many
well-deserved honors in the brief years left to her. Her thoughts on accepting an honorary
doctorate from The Johns Hopkins University where never revealed to me. She was too
gracious to make an issue of male chauvanism.
The stories related here are from personal
recollections, and are not recorded in biographies. Below is listed some material of
interest about two persons of whom anecdotes were told.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring,
Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1962.
This book is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, who said, "Man has lost the capacity to
forsee and to forstall. He will end by destroying the earth."
Muller, H. J. Man's Future Birthright,
Essays on Science and Humanity.
Edited by Axel Carlson. Forward by Bentley Glass. State University of New York. Albany.
Graham, Frank, Jr. Since Silent Spring.
Houghton Mifflin, Boston. 1970.,
"It is Miss Carlson's particular gift to be able to blend scientific knowledge with
the spirit of poetical awareness,thus restoring to us a true sense of the world." Henry Beston.