Happy Thomas Hunt Morgan Day!

If Gregor Mendel was the Father of Genetics, Thomas Hunt Morgan, whose birthday we celebrate today, was the Godfather of Genetics.  He was the first to win a Nobel Prize for genetics and, from his lab, several of his students went on to earn their own Nobel Prizes thanks in part to his mentorship.

Thomas Hunt Morgan (via Wikipedia)

So what did he do that was so great? What makes him worthy of a new nerdy holiday?

Morgan figured out so many of the basics of genetics that we now take for granted. Because of his work, we know that genes are on chromosomes, that crossover sometimes happens in between them when eggs & sperm are made, that radiation causes mutations, and that many traits are linked to sex chromosomes. He also established Drosophila (fruit flies) as a model organism and developed a radical research environment where scientists in the same lab would talk to each other frequently and were encouraged to share their thoughts and data (which is now pretty much the standard.) He started mapping genes on chromosomes to determine their order and measured their relative distance from each other by linkage mapping. This is why the unit of measure named after him is a measurement of genetic linkage.

Above all else, Thomas Hunt Morgan was a skeptic. He hated speculation and disregarded what there wasn’t evidence to support. Early on, he was actually a critic of Mendelian genetics and Darwin’s explanation for evolution. He set out to prove an alternative hypothesis for heredity but his data only confirmed Mendels results and filled in the gap in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution By Natural Selection regarding the mechanics of inheritance. In 1916, he wrote A Critique of the Theory of Evolution which laid out the detailed genetic mechanism for the inheritance of variations and thus placed a major missing puzzle piece into Darwin’s theory.

The man was brilliant, diligent, and hungry to better understand how things worked. In fact, he couldn’t even be pulled away from the bench to attend his own Nobel acceptance ceremony in 1933 because discoveries in the lab were more interesting to him.

So how will you celebrate Thomas Hunt Morgan Day? Enjoy some Drosophila Cookies!

About Ericka M. Johnson

As a lover of science and reason, Ericka M. Johnson has an affinity for evolutionary biology and is the president of Seattle Atheists. She revels in any opportunity for a thoughtful debate on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything (especially over a pint.) Follow her on twitter @ErickaMJohnson

  • Reginald Selkirk

    … and, from his lab, several of his students went on to earn their own Nobel Prizes thanks in part to his mentorship.

    Or, if you prefer, favouritism and cronyism.

  • Grizzz

    No doubt about it, the dude was awesome.

  • Foster

    Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a devout Catholic monk.

  • Loren Petrich

    During Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union, Trofim Lysenko and his followers made his name into a dirty word: Morganism (Soviet Biology, Report by Lysenko to the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, 1948, etc.). Lysenko and his followers believed that genes do not exist, and they denounced mainstream genetics as reactionary bourgeois idealist formalist Mendelism Weismannism Morganism.

    They got the support of Communist Party officials, including Joseph Stalin himself, and mainstream biologists were made to recant or were sent to prison camps.

  • ErickaMJohnson

    And DNA is double stranded.

  • ErickaMJohnson

    (Unless it’s been denatured…then it’s single stranded…)

  • BIgMrE

    Yes, but can Morgan explain why the cookies are all females fruit flies?

  • Foster

    And in *Parvoviridae* as well, but that is not really relevant to your post, whereas the fact that Gregor Mendel, the first word of your post, was devoutly religious, seems to me quite relevant, since you are promoting another scientist in the same field of lesser prominence specifically because of his religious skepticism.

  • ErickaMJohnson

    I am promoting Morgan because of his scientific awesomeness. His non-religiosity is a side note.  Morgan deserves far more prominence than Mendel for the magnitude of his discoveries and his leadership in pushing the new science further.

    And we don’t really know for sure that Mendel was devotedly Catholic. He may have just been generically Catholic, choosing to become a monk because it was the primary way someone who wasn’t from a wealthy family could do science at the time. Regardless, I’m still kinda annoyed with Mendel for ignoring the results he didn’t understand (he didn’t publish all of his findings, just the ones that fit the 3:1 ratio).

  • Foster

    His anti-religiosity in the form of his skepticism is not a “side-note” but is the aspect of his character that allows you to present him here.  If he was a Christian, you would not be promoting him here no matter how great his “scientific awesomeness.”  When I use the word devout, I mean he lived a consistent and dedicated Catholic life, living as a celibate priest,  saying Mass for his people, devoting his life to improving agriculture and meteorology, and defending his Church when it came under the attack of the Moravian government.  So yeah, I’m pretty sure he was devout even by looser definitions.   Generally you don’t publish findings that make no logical sense because people aren’t interested in meaningless handfuls of data.  Except in very specialized fields like particle physics (where the experiments are so costly as to be non-repeatable for even experts reading them), you publish when you have data *and* a theory to explain them.  So you’re being unreasonably harsh with Mendel, in my opinion, particularly since he predated modern statistical methods (alpha = .05 and all that).  

  • ErickaMJohnson

    I would have written about Morgan regardless. I didn’t actually know he was an atheist when I decided to write this post. I only found out about that a few days ago but had been planning to blog about him for months. Again, it’s his scientific awesomeness that inspired this post. I added the bit about skepticism because I figured people who read this blog would appreciate it.

    And the data that Mendel ignored wasn’t meaningless. Far from it. It was crossover, which Morgan would later unravel, that stumped Mendel. He also probably fudged his data to make it such a tidy 3:1 ratio. It’s not so much that I’m being too harsh on Mendel; I’m just not nearly impressed by his accomplishments as I am of Morgan’s. Really, between the two of them, there’s no comparison.

    But really, what is this conversation about? Why do you care that everyone knows Mendel was a Catholic? Did you know Linnaeus was religious too? Said he did all of his work for the glory of god. That doesn’t make his god any less made up.