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Chapter 2: High-Flux Years

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Alexander Hollaender was director of ORNL's Biology Division from 1946 through 1966. Under his leadership, it became the Laboratory's largest division and gained international recognition for its contributions to radiation genetics, biochemistry, radiation carcinogenesis, and molecular biology.

Alexander Hollaender

Hollaender, a native of Germany, became renowned both locally and nationally. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences; in 1968, he was awarded a Finsen Medal at the Fifth International Congress of Photobiology; in 1983 he received the Fermi Award, the Department of Energy's highest honor; and in 1984, he received the National Medal of Science. "He has made superior contributions in three different fields of endeavor--scientific discovery, scientific education, and scientific administration," wrote Richard B. Setlow, formerly of ORNL's Biology Division and now an associate director at Brookhaven National Laboratory. 

Hollaender earned his Ph.D. degree in physical chemistry at the University of Wisconsin. Before coming to Clinton Laboratories in 1946, he directed a radiobiology laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he examined the effects of ultraviolet radiation on fungi. From his studies, he correctly suggested in 1939 that nucleic acids, not the cell's proteins, carried the genetic information in reproduction.

Hollaender was attracted to Clinton Laboratories because of its variety of radiation sources. He intended to acquire staff and equipment and form a National Institutes of Health Institute of Radiation Health at Oak Ridge. Instead, he formulated a plan for a new Biology Division, which was given space in buildings initially constructed for chemical reprocessing at the Y-12 Plant.

Hollaender was opportunistic and open to new ideas. He originally thought the effects of radiation on the genes of all species could be determined by studies of simple cells in microorganisms and fruit flies. But when he heard of the pioneering work on the genetic effects of radiation on mice by Bill and Liane Russell at Bar Harbor, Maine, he realized that the results of mouse studies might be more applicable to humans than the results of fruit fly studies. He conceived of starting a large mouse genetics project, however risky in terms of the cost and the long time needed for useful results. So when Russell was thinking of leaving Bar Harbor, Hollaender hired him and his wife Liane to set up a genetics laboratory at ORNL, dubbed the Mouse House. 

In addition to his scientific expertise and leadership, Hollaender was an educator. With Mary Bunting and Glenn Seaborg of the AEC, and Andy Holt of the University of Tennessee, in 1968 he founded the University of Tennessee- Oak Ridge Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. 

He is remembered for organizing many symposia on biological topics held in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for designing student trainee programs in the Biology Division, and for leading group hikes in the Cumberland Mountains. At Hollaender's retirement from the Laboratory in 1966, Alvin Weinberg assessed Hollaender's career, which extended beyond his specific accomplishments to a new way of thinking that transformed and enriched both the Laboratory and the biological sciences:

Alex Hollaender invented a new style of biological investigation: the melding of enormous, expensive mammalian experiments with basic investigations on a much smaller scale in which the principles underlying the mammalian experiments could be demonstrated and tested in the most delicate and far-reaching way. It is this unique combination of the big and the small, the mission-oriented and the discipline-oriented, that is Alex Hollaender's great contribution to biomedical science. It is a contribution that has forever changed biology.

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