Liane Russell, scientist who put spotlight on danger of X-rays for embryos, dies at 95

In the course of her research on the effects of radiation, Dr. Liane Russell discovered that male mice carried the Y chromosome.


By EMILY LANGER | The Washington Post | Published: August 24, 2019

Liane Russell, a refugee of Nazi Europe who became one of the most distinguished female scientists of her era, building a colony of more than 200,000 laboratory mice that she used to demonstrate the importance of protecting developing embryos from X-rays and other forms of radiation, died July 20 at a hospital in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. She was 95.

She had contracted pneumonia after undergoing chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer, said her son, David "Ace" Russell.

Dr. Russell spent the early years of her life in Vienna, where her father was a chemical engineer and her mother was a voice teacher. Her parents, according to a family tribute, cultivated her "inquiring mind, treated her as a rational being, and convinced her that girls could do anything boys could."

Russell's family, which was of Jewish heritage, managed to escape Austria after its annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938, but only by relinquishing their home, her father's company and their belongings. They ultimately settled in the United States, where Russell pursued her scientific studies and career.

In 1947, she and her husband, fellow scientist William Russell, joined what became the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Both had doctorates in zoology and specialized in genetics. Together they built the "Mouse House," as their colony of laboratory mice was known, with the goal of using mice to better understand the effect of radiation on living things and particularly mammals.

It was a matter of pressing concern at the time: Two years earlier, the United States had ended World War II by dropping atomic bombs - produced through the Manhattan Project conducted at Oak Ridge - on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the onset of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear war loomed, and along with it fears about the health effects of nuclear fallout.

Russell's research produced findings with relevance far beyond such cataclysmic eventualities. She became known chiefly for her research showing that radiation, such as from X-rays, harms embryos, particularly in their early stages of development. Because of her work - as any female patient who has ever sat in a dentist's chair can attest - women of childbearing age are routinely asked if they are or might be pregnant before they are X-rayed.

With her husband, Russell studied generations of mice, which are useful for laboratory research because of their genetic similarity to humans. She had begun similar research as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

"I irradiated mouse embryos in different stages of development," she once recalled, according to the Tennessee newspaper the Oak Ridger, "and I ended up producing baby mice with strange abnormalities, such as misshapen legs, toes fused together or kinky tails."

According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Russell "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." Such abnormalities arise as a result of a process known as teratogenesis.

Russell concluded that human embryos were most sensitive to the ill effects of radiation during the first seven weeks of their development. This window presented a particular danger for the many women who do not learn until after that point that they are pregnant, and led to the recommendation that women of childbearing age receive non-emergency X-rays only in the two weeks after their menstrual period, when pregnancy is least likely.

Because they upset existing practices, those 1952 recommendations "brought the wrath of radiologists down upon our heads, and unleashed a series of letters to the editor," Russell later recalled, according to the Oak Ridge laboratory. "Before long, however, the so-called 14-day (sometimes 10-day) rule became internationally accepted in radiological practice."

By observing the manifestation of mutations in male or female mice, Russell also drew the conclusion that male mice carried the Y chromosome.

"For 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," Russell was awarded a $100,000 Enrico Fermi Award from the Energy Department in 1994.

"Her findings," the citation continued, "have been the benchmark for the study of mutations in mammals and genetic risk assessment worldwide."

Liane Ruth Brauch was born in Vienna on Aug. 27, 1923. After the Anschluss, her family fled to Belgium, then to England and finally to the United States.

"Lee," as Russell was called, received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Hunter College in New York City in 1945, became a U.S. citizen in 1946 and received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 1949. She met her future husband while working at the Jackson Laboratory for mammalian genetics in Bar Harbor, Maine.

"I remember first looking down a microscope at a fertilized mouse egg," Russell told the Oak Ridger. "The total wonder was that this little thing is going to be a whole mouse!" She retired from Oak Ridge in 2002.

Her husband died in 2003 after 55 years of marriage. In addition to their son, of Knoxville, Tennessee, survivors include a daughter, Evelyn Russell of Minneapolis; three stepchildren, Jack Russell and Ellen Gilmore, both of Mount Desert, Maine, and Jim Russell of Southwest Harbor, Maine; and four grandchildren. Her stepson Dick Russell died in 1994.

Russell and her husband were prominent conservationists in Tennessee and were both inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. In 2013, Oak Ridge National Laboratory created the Liane B. Russell Distinguished Early Career Fellowship to assist young researchers, particularly women and minorities.

"In my life, I was very fortunate in being given opportunities to pursue my own ideas in exciting research areas," Russell said at the time. "But this is, sadly, not the case for many young women hoping for scientific careers and ending up in merely supporting roles, perhaps doing only routine jobs." 

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