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Biology & Biological Engineering: T. H. Morgan and Caltech's Biological Evolution

T. H. Morgan and Caltech's Biological Evolution

Thomas Hunt Morgan at Caltech, 1945. Photo ID 1.43-7

In 1928 Thomas Hunt Morgan left Columbia University to found a new program in biology at the California Institute of Technology. Only geneticists would be recruited to Caltech at the start, among them Morgan's former students and long-time associates Alfred H. Sturtevant and Calvin Bridges, in addition to Theodosius Dobzhansky, the plant geneticist E. G. Anderson, and a graduate student in embryology, Albert Tyler. Morgan got a new building for his work, the elegantly functional Kerckhoff Laboratory. Morgan's program at Caltech formed and grew around a cadre of distinguished geneticists who over the years garnered an impressive number of Nobel Prizes: George W. Beadle (1958), Max Delbrück (1969), Barbara McClintock (1983), and Edward B. Lewis (1995). Morgan himself won the prize in 1933.

William G. Kerckhoff Laboratories of the Biological Sciences, built 1928. Photo ID 30.8-4

Morgan's belief that every biological process was grounded in discoverable physical and chemical functions had early on hindered his acceptance of Darwin's theory of natural selection. It did not explain to Morgan's satisfaction how new, adaptive variations in species arose, nor how they were passed on. He began his experiments to introduce mutations in Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, at Columbia soon after his appointment there in 1904. The small "Fly Room" in Schermerhorn Hall was the scene of both science and the social events that bound Morgan's group together.

Party in the Fly Room at Columbia on January 2, 1919. (L-R, back row): E. G. Anderson, A. Weinstein, S. C. Dellinger, C. B. Bridges, Pithecanthropus, H. J. Muller, T. H. Morgan, F. E. Lutz; (L-R, front row): F. Schrader, A. H. Sturtevant, A. F. Huettner, O. L. Mohr. Photo ID 1.43-1

In 1910, with the publication of his first paper on Drosophila in the journal Science, Morgan had shifted his direction from evolution to a study of heredity. He went on to develop the fundamental chromosome theory of heredity for which he became celebrated.

The Caltech Archives holds the bulk of the papers of Thomas Hunt Morgan as well as papers of the following scientists who worked closely with Morgan or with members of his original school in the field of genetics at Caltech: George W. Beadle, Seymour Benzer, Max Delbrück, Sterling Emerson, Norman Horowitz, Edward B. Lewis, Barbara McClintock, A. H. Sturtevant, Albert Tyler, and Jean-Jacques Weigle. In addition, oral histories of Benzer, Delbrück, Lewis, and a joint interview with James Bonner, Norman Horowitz, and Sterling Emerson, are among the Archives' digital collections: More interviews with other Caltech biologists are also accessible at that site, notably, those with Renato Dulbecco, Herschel Mitchell, Ray Owen, and Robert Sinsheimer.

Pithecanthropus, from photo album of A. H. Sturtevant. Photo ID AHS10.1-7