OF REDLANDS, CALIFORNIA  - Founded 24 January 1895

MEETING # 1519

4:00 P.M.

MARCH 18, 1993

Tales Told Out of School:

Stories About Scientists I Have Known

howell93.jpg (41382 bytes)

by Charles D. Howell Ph.D.

Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library


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 teachers.

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.


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 characteristic.

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 research.

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 Full Professor.

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, 1964.

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 the decision.

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. 1973.

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.

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