William Lawson “Bill” Russell

(August 19, 1910–July 23, 2003)

William Lawson “Bill” Russell was born in Newhaven, on the south coast of England. His father was the small town’s sole pharmacist during World War I. The analytical thinking of his father had a strong impact on the intellectual development of his son. From his years in Newhaven he was fascinated by the sea and enjoyed sailing very much.

After his early schooling in Newhaven, he earned a scholarship to Oxford University, where he was on the rowing and judo teams. Upon graduating in 1932, he was awarded a one-year fellowship to Amherst College in Massachusetts. His work with Drosophila at Amherst encouraged him to apply for doctoral work under Professor Sewall Wright at the University of Chicago. Before starting his work on the doctoral thesis he wanted to know his adopted country better and hitchhiked to the West Coast and back. He earned his doctorate in 1936 with a dissertation on physiological genetics of guinea pigs. Dr. Russell married fellow University of Chicago doctoral student Elizabeth Schull in 1937. The couple moved to Maine that same year to work at the Jackson Laboratory. They had four children together before divorcing in 1947.

During the latter part of the 1940s, Bill married Liane (Lee) Brauch, who would be his lifelong companion and coworker until his death. The newlyweds moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where Dr. Alexander Hollaender had established the Biology Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In Oak Ridge, they started a new research career and founded a family. Lee and Bill had two children. While beginning to plan his research, Bill asked Dr. Hollaender for a conventional-size mouse colony in order to continue his research. However, in the post-World War II era, there was much concern about possible hazards from the fallout of nuclear weapons tests and from peaceful uses of radiation. On the recommendations of the Nobel laureate Herman J. Muller and Sewall Wright a mouse genetics program was initiated in Oak Ridge. Therefore, Dr. Hollaender asked Bill Russell to investigate the genetic effects of radiation in mice. Dr. Hollaender and his advisers encouraged Dr. Russell to think big; the first floor of an old factory was developed into a very efficient mouse house. In 1951 W.L. Russell published the first results of his experiments: “X-ray-induced mutations in mice” (Cold Spring
Harbor Symp Quant Biol [1951]: 16:327–336). In 48,007 offspring of irradiated males, 53–54 mutations were observed. In 37,868 offspring in the control group, only two mutations could be found. An experiment of such size was a new dimension in biology. Later the second and the third floors of the mouse house were developed, establishing a laboratory with impressive resources that was unique in all the world.

Dr. Alvin Weinberg, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, described these experiments in the following way: “Such research requires the style of Big Biology, big institutes, big experiments, big money, and, one hopes, big ideas.” Bill Russell was a brilliant exponent of “Big Biology.”

To study the induction of germ cell mutations in mice, Dr. Russell developed a simple, elegant method to detect recessive mutations in the first generation offspring. This approach is known as the specific-locus assay. A specific-locus test is conducted by mating treated wild-type mice with animals homozygous for seven autosomal-recessive visible mutations. The offspring are expected to be heterozygous at the marker loci. In the event of a mutation at one of the marker loci in a germ cell of the treated wild-type animal, the offspring will express the recessive phenotype characteristic for the locus. The specific-locus method was used by Bill Russell to evaluate the physical and biological factors that affect mutagenesis: radiation dose and dose rate (“Radiation dose rate and mutation frequency,” Science [1958]: 128:1546–1550), dose fractionation (“An augmenting effect of dose fractionation on radiation-induced mutation rate in mice,” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA [1962]: 48:1724–1727), sex differences (“Radiation-induced mutation rates in female mice,” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA [1958]: 44:901–905) and the interval between irradiation and conception in female mice (“Repair mechanisms in radiation mutation induction in the mouse,” Brookhaven Symp Biol [1967]: 20:179–189).

Similar success was achieved in investigating the mutagenicity of N-ethyl-N-nitrosourea. In a key paper (Proc Natl Acad Sci USA [1982]: 79:3589 –3591) Bill writes: “The extreme mutagenic effectiveness of N-ethyl-N-nitrosourea in the mouse has permitted the accumulation of the most extensive dose-response data yet obtained for chemical induction of specific-locus mutations in spermatogonia. In the lower portion of the curve, below a dose of 100 mg/kg, the data fall statistically significantly below a maximum likelihood fit to a straight line.…It is concluded that, despite the mutagenic effectiveness of ethylnitrosourea, the spermatogonia are apparently capable of repairing at least a major part of the mutational damage when the repair process is not swamped by a high dose. This finding is important both in basic studies on the mutagenic action of chemicals in mammals and in risk estimation.”

Bill was very aware of the importance of the mouse data for estimating the genetic risk of radiation and chemicals in man (“The role of mammals in the future of chemical mutagenesis research,” Arch Toxicol [1977]: 38:141–147; and “Comments on mutagenesis risk estimation,” Genetics [1979]: 92(suppl):S187–S194). However, he never published a paper specifically addressing the genetic risk of environmental exposure in humans, because he considered the business of risk estimation too risky.

Dr. Russell was President of the Genetics Society of America, a charter member of the Environmental Mutagenesis and Genomics Society (EMGS) and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
On May 5, 1973, Liane B. Russell and William L. Russell were awarded the Rontgen-Plakette (Roentgen Medal) from the Deutsche Rontgen-Museum at Remscheid-Lennep. Later he received many additional awards, including the Fermi Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Department of Energy, and the Health Physics Society’s lifetime achievement award. The new mouse house at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is known as the William L. and Liane B. Russell Laboratory for Comparative and Functional Genomics.

W.L. Russell participated in the United Nations International Conferences on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva, where he presented papers on the progress of mammalian radiation genetics. He was a very active member of the United States delegation to United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). The different reports, published by UNSCEAR on the “Genetic effects of radiation,” are an excellent source of the progress and the importance of the mouse data generated in Oak Ridge for the estimation of the genetic risk in man. Dr. Russell was also an active participant at EMGS meetings. He invigorated meetings with stimulating and interesting talks and challenged other speakers on points of science. These interactions brought about lively discussions and served as a catalyst to the thinking of EMGS members.

The fundamental work on mutagenesis in mammals attracted young scientists of many countries: Argentina, Belgium, China, Germany, Italy, the Philippines, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The colleagues of Bill Russell were impressed by his analytical thinking and his basic conviction founded on the age of enlightenment. His spirit can best be expressed by the words of Jens Peter Jacobsen: “Light over the land—that is, what we wanted.”

Bill was not only a great scientist. He loved the world, its mountains, its animals, its plants, and its wild rivers. At least until his 85th birthday he swam across the lake at his summer house. This was a very long distance, and few people had the courage to follow his example. I had the privilege of working in his mammalian section when I received the Public Health Service International Fellowship Award in 1959. With the Fellowship I was able to attend the Radiation Research Conference in San Francisco. I never will forget the enthusiasm of Bill when he advised my family as to what places we should visit on our way to San Francisco and on the way back. He tried to persuade us not only with words, but also with the wonderful pictures that he took on his many tours to the West. Later, we were again together in Oak Ridge (1963–1968). At that time, he was not only our great friend, but also the friend of our children. They were very much impressed by his ability as a magician. His presence made a difference to all who came in contact with him. We were all enriched. He will be missed by many.

Udo Ehling,

Biography excerpted from Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis 42:231-232, 2003.