Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County
Nobel Prize winning biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan taught at Bryn Mawr.
Awards: Nobel Prize
Born in 1866, Thomas Hunt Morgan was a biologist who first began complex research and understandings of human genetics. He studied and taught at many universities including Pennsylvania? Bryn Mawr College. Through his studies at Bryn Mawr and Columbia, he established the chromosomal theory of inheritance. For his work, he was presented with the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Morgan died in 1945.
Nobel Laureate Thomas Hunt Morgan was born on September 25, 1866, in Lexington, Kentucky. At a young age Morgan showed much interest in natural history. In 1866 Morgan graduated from the State University of Kentucky (now the University of Kentucky) with a BS degree in Zoology and proceeded to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to study Biology. After four years of study, Morgan received his PhD.
A year after earning his doctorate, Morgan was hired to teach at Bryn Mawr College in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. In 1891, he was appointed to the rank of Associate Professor of Biology at the college. He remained there for 13 years, teaching various classes on Biology and doing research of his own, including intense work with embryology. It was at Bryn Mawr that Morgan formulated the philosophy of education that he passed on to his graduate students: “Neglect Your Teaching.” He did not, however, neglect his personal life during his time at Bryn Mawr. He met, courted, and wed Bryn Mawr alumna Lilian Vaughan Sampson in 1903.
In 1904, he was invited to hold a position as a Professor at Columbia University and remained there as Professor of Experimental Zoology. This began perhaps the most important period in Morgan’s life. While at Columbia, Morgan’s interests were drawn to the study of genetics, specifically species variation or the study of how a species evolves over time. From 1900 to 1910 Morgan had his own theories that differed from those of “the father of genetics,” Gregor Mendel. Morgan doubted the previously accepted theories that genetic information is carried on chromosomes. In 1911, he established a laboratory for his studies using a special model organism, Drosophila (fruit fly). The small, cramped and often headache causing room was coined “The Fly Room.” After Morgan went through a staggering number of breeding studies, he and his team concluded Mendel’s postulates were true and further showed validity of Mendel’s studies.
Morgan and his team published The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity in 1915. In this, Thomas Hunt Morgan established the chromosomal theory of inheritance. This theory stated that genes, or units of heredity, are carried upon a chromosome. This work was a starting point for scientist to look at genetics from the standpoint of chromosomal importance. These studies created a foundation that would later allow, and still allows, other scientists to understand how genetic diseases occur and how to begin to locate the genes in a person’s chromosome and possibly find cures. Many years later, the Karolinska Institutet awarded Morgan the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine “for his discoveries concerning the role played by the chromosome in heredity” in 1933. During his Nobel Lecture, Morgan touched upon the importance of his work saying, “Medical science will from here take the lead – but I hope that genetics can at times offer a helping hand.”
After Morgan’s work at Columbia, he moved to Pasadena in 1928 to accept a position as a professor at California Institute of Technology. He stepped away from working with genetics and move on to working with embryology.
In late 1945, Morgan developed severe health complications. On December 4, Morgan passed away due to bleeding stomach ulcers at the age of 79. The prestigious British medical journal The Lancet lauded him: “By the death of T.H. Morgan the biological world loses an outstanding figure.”
Morgan’s studies have instilled a strong legacy on the biological science community. When asked what his studies accomplished he responded, “[Science] also shows that eventually it may be possible to improve the human breed through foreseen gene manipulations. Tendencies towards diseases like cancer may be weeded out. Human beings resistant to germs may be evolved.” Morgan proved to be an excellent teacher as two of his students, George Wells Beadle and Hermann Joseph Muller, won their own Nobel Prizes in medicine. Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel stated in a paper discussing his accomplishments, “Morgan’s findings about genes and their location on chromosomes helped transform biology into an experimental science.”
Heredity and Sex. New York: Columbia University Press, 1913.
(With A.H. Sturtevant, H.J. Muller, and C.B. Bridges) The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915.
Physical Basis of Heredity. London: Lippincott Company, 1919.
The Theory of the Gene. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926.
Scientific Basis of Evolution. London: Faber and Faber, 1932.
Embryology and Genetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1934.