Liane Brauch Russell is a distinguished, Austrian-born geneticist. Born on August 27, 1923 in Vienna, Russell was the oldest of three children. Her father was was a chemical engineer, and her mother was a housewife. She had a happy childhood in Vienna, until they were forced out in 1938 when Germany annexed Austria. She and her family fled to England, where they lived for several years, before permanently moving to the United States.
Russell initially studied writing when she attended Hunter College in New York and even won an Atlantic Monthly writing competition. In the summer of 1943, she participated in a research assistantship program at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. The experience convinced her to change her major from writing to chemistry. She returned to Jackson Laboratory the following summer and worked as a technician after she graduated with an A.B. in chemistry and a minor in biology in 1945. She then attended the University of Chicago for graduate school, where she received her Ph.D in zoology in 1949.[i]
In 1947, she and her husband Bill, whom she met at Jackson Laboratory, moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work at Clinton Laboratories. They worked in the Y-12 facilities, where Manhattan Project scientists electromagnetically separated uranium isotopes only a few years earlier. The laboratory where the Russells worked at focused on studying radiation-induced mutation rates, the effects of nuclear fallout on people’s health, and hereditary effects of radiation. Since mice are genetically similar to humans, the Russells and other scientists worked with mice to answer these questions. Because of this, the Y-12 facilities became known as the “Mouse House.”
During this time, Russell initially studied teratogenesis, or the damage to developing embryos. She discovered that there were critical moments in the mouse embryo’s development. For example, the mouse embryo will develop arms on day eleven. Another example is that abnormalities do not show up until after day four of mouse embryonic development.
She mapped out the time range in mouse development and compared it to human development. Russell learned that the first seven weeks in humans—instead of fifteen days in a mouse—was critical for major aberrations and abnormalities. Based on this information, she developed a recommendation that stated women should schedule medical irradiation procedures in the first two weeks following a menstrual period to prevent abnormalities in fetuses caused by radiation. This later became known as the “ten-day rule.”
Russell and her husband began to notice that some of the male mice suffered from a spontaneous mutation that made the mouse sick. Because these sick mice died before they could reproduce, Bill Russell used a method he developed before arriving at Oak Ridge: ovarian transplantation in mice. He transplanted ovaries from female mice affected by radiation into healthy ones. These female mice would give birth to mostly male and, rarely, female offspring that carried only one X chromosome with a mutation on it. The Russells discovered that some female offspring had one X and nothing else (XO), and males that had the one X and a Y (XY). With evidence from XO females, they concluded that the Y chromosome was male-determining in a mouse.
Later, they also discovered autosomal chromosomes, non-sex chromosomes, in the X chromosome and X autosome translocation. They learned from spotted mice that the autosome on the X chromosomes were sometimes inactivated. When the X chromosome was inactive, the genes on that piece of autosome became inactive. They concluded that only one X chromosome is active in a female mouse with two X chromosomes. In female mammals, the activation of the X chromosome is random. Some cells in which this X is active, and some cells in which the other one is active. Therefore, every female is actually a mosaic of two different kinds of cells.
In the 1970s, the Clinton Laboratories began studying the impacts of chemicals on mutations. They discovered that ethylnitrosourea (ENU) induced a huge amount of single-locus mutations, or spot mutations.
Russell was head of the Biology Division at Oak Ridge Laboratories from 1975 to 1995. Oak Ridge National Laboratories appointed her as a corporate fellow in 1983 and, four years later, a senior corporate fellow.[ii]
Contributions to Environmental Conservation
Russell and her husband were involved in the environmental movement. Their interest in environmental protection began in 1965 when they hiked through and fell in love with the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. In December of that same year, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced plans to build a dam on the Cumberland River. The Russells feared that the dam would damage the ecosystem and, as a result, formed the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning (TCWP) in 1966. Two years later, the group helped pass the Tennessee State Scenic Rivers Act, which was used to protect the Cumberland River.
They also fought to protect the greenbelts, land preserved in its natural state for recreational and public use, in Oak Ridge and developed the North Ridge Trail that spans for eleven miles from the east end almost to the west end of Oak Ridge in the northern greenbelts.
Russell received many prestigious awards and appointments for her invaluable work in biology, genetics, and radiation. While working at the Clinton Laboratories, she was also the scientific adviser for the U.S. delegation to the first Atoms for Peace Conference in 1955. In 1973, she was awarded the Roentgen Medal and was elected to the Hunter College Hall of Fame six years later. In 1986, she became a member of the National Academy of Sciences.[iii] The Department of Energy awarded her the DOE Distinguished Associate Award in 1986. In 1994, the mammalian geneticist received the Fermi Award “[f]or her outstanding contributions to genetics and radiation biology including her discovery of the chromosomal basis for sex determination in mammals and her contributions to our knowledge of the effects of radiation on the developing embryo and fetus.”[iv]
In 2013, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory established the Liane B. Russell Fellowship in her honor. The fellowship is designed for young women to get their own independent research facilities.
Liane Russell, interview by Nathaniel Weisenberg, at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, The Atomic Heritage Foundation, April 25, 2018.
“Liane B. Russell, 1993.” Department of Energy, Office of Science. Updated March 5, 2016. https://science.energy.gov/fermi/award-laureates/1990s/russell/.
“Liane B. Russell.” Oak Ridge National Laboratory. https://www.ornl.gov/our-people/liane-russell.
“Greenbelts.” City of Oak Ridge Recreation and Parks Department. http://orrecparks.oakridgetn.gov/greenbelts/.
“History of the Jackson Laboratory.” Jackson Laboratory. https://www.jax.org/about-us/history#at-jax
“Russell, Liane Interview January 18th-19th, 2007.” Oral History of Human Genetics Project. http://ohhgp.pendari.com/Interview.aspx?id=31.
Russell, Liane B. “UTILIZATION OF CRITICAL PERIODS DURING DEVELOPMENT TO STUDY THE EFFECTS OF LOW LEVELS OF ENVIRONMENTAL AGENTS.” Biology Division Oak Ridge National Laboratory. https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/11/565/11565237.pdf.
[i] “Liane B. Russell,” Oak Ridge National Laboratory. https://www.ornl.gov/our-people/liane-russell, accessed October 10, 2018.
[iv] “Liane B. Russell, 1993.” Department of Energy, Office of Science. Updated March 5, 2016. https://science.energy.gov/fermi/award-laureates/1990s/russell/.