The Russells: A Family Affair

William Lawson (Bill) Russell and Liane Brauch (Lee) Russell, the eminent husband-and-wife team who have studied mammalian genetics for 45 years at ORNL's Biology Division, have much in common. Both received the International Roentgen Medal, both earned Ph.D. degrees in zoology and genetics from the University of Chicago, and both worked at the Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, before coming to the Laboratory, where they have headed genetics research in the Biology Division. Also, both were elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of only 11 couples so honored.

Bill Russell, the former scientific director of the Mammalian Genetics Section in the Biology Division and now an ORNL consultant, is a native of Newhaven, England, with a B.A. degree in zoology from Oxford University. Lee, head of the Mammalian and Genetics Development Section of the Biology Division since 1975, is a native of Vienna, Austria, with a B.A. degree in chemistry from Hunter College in New York City.

In 1947, Bill wanted to leave Jackson Memorial Laboratory but would only accept a new position if Lee were offered one, too. Alexander Hollaender, director of the new Biology Division at Clinton Laboratories, came through with such an offer, and Bill and Lee came to Oak Ridge in November 1947 shortly after Jackson Memorial Laboratory burned to the ground.

Bill's first achievement in Oak Ridge was to develop efficient and reliable genetic methods to determine the rate at which mouse genes are mutated by different types and levels of radiation. But, to do this, he had to set up the Mouse House, a national resource that contains more than a quarter million mice, for which he designed cages, food containers, racks, and machines for washing bottles and cages. Soon after experiments got under way, he found that the mutation rate in the mouse was 15 times that in the fruit fly. As a result, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements reduced the permissible levels for occupational exposure to radiation.

In 1952, as a result of Lee's studies of the vulnerability of early embryos of irradiated mice, the Russells recommended that physicians use diagnostic X rays on the pelvic regions of childbearing women only during that part of the menstrual cycle when pregnancy cannot occur.

In 1958, the Russells and Elizabeth Kelly discovered that the mutation rate in mice exposed to chronic radiation (spread over time) was between one-third and one-fourth the mutation rate in mice exposed to acute radiation (delivered in a matter of minutes). It was a significant finding because no dose-rate effect had been found in fruit-fly studies and because it suggested that a genetic repair mechanism corrects minor damage caused by low doses of radiation. By the mid-1960s the Russells had proved that sensitivity to radiation differs not only between mice and fruit flies but also between male and female mice. They then started a new area of investigation: determining the genetic effects on mice of chemicals from drugs, fuels, and wastes. In 1971, Bill and his associates published a paper recommending that, based on mouse studies, the drug hycanthone should continue to be used as a therapeutic drug for schistosomiasis, a debilitating parasitic disease common in the Third World. In 1975, Lee developed a fur-spot test for identifying chemicals likely to be mutagenic in reproductive cells. In 1979, Bill found that the laboratory chemical ethylnitrosourea (ENU) is the most potent mutagen ever tested in mice, making it a prime tool for studying mechanisms of mutagenesis.

In the 1980s, while continuing her research on the effects of chemicals on mice, Lee enlarged her genetic studies on the nature of mutational lesions caused by different treatments. Under her leadership, her section has increased in scientific staff and moved into areas of modern molecular genetics, including insertional mutagenesis and targeted mutagenesis--techniques that alter random or selected mouse genes. The research may unlock the secrets of human DNA by locating specific genes responsible for specific functions or malfunctions, such as diseased kidneys. DOE has recently recognized the section's unique capability for adding to the genome research effort.

In 1991, the international journal Mutation Research dedicated a special issue to Bill on his 80th birthday. In their introduction, the journal's editors stated, "No single person has contributed more to the field of mammalian mutagenesis, and thus to genetic risk assessment in man, than Dr. W. L. Russell." They might have added that his accomplishments likely would have been half as impressive without the scientific research conducted by his wife. Together, the Russells have formed one of the most fruitful collaborations in the annals of American science.

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