H. J. Muller’s page on Wikipedia begins with the following introduction:
Hermann Joseph Muller (December 21, 1890 – April 5, 1967) was an American geneticist, educator, and Nobel laureate best known for his work on the physiological and genetic effects of radiation (mutagenesis), as well as his outspoken political beliefs. Muller frequently warned of long-term dangers of radioactive fallout from nuclear war and nuclear testing, which resulted in greater public scrutiny of these practices.Hermann Joseph Muller on Wikipedia
That article leaves out some important historical background.
In the summer of 1945, H. J. Muller was in deep financial difficulty. He had burned many bridges during his career. He had a young wife, an infant daughter, and a notice in hand that he would be losing his job. He was 56 years old and had not accumulated any savings. He had moved around too much and worked in too many temporary positions to have vested in any pensions.
His only real hope was his long term relationship with patrons from the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), especially Frank Hanson, the Associate Director of Natural Sciences. Hanson had studied radiation genetics with Muller at the University of Texas in 1927. He joined the RF staff in 1930 as an administrator of fellowship programs in Europe.
The RF began supporting Muller’s research and intervening in his job searches soon thereafter. Muller’s biographer, Elof Axel Carlson, attributes the RF patronage to Hanson’s appreciation of Muller’s collegiality when they worked together in Texas.
Another plausible explanation is that the RF recognized they might have a future use for Muller and his radiation effects research.
Atomic energy as threat to hydrocarbon market
Conventional narratives about the introduction of atomic energy often begin by talking about the explosive revelations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. But leaders in the Hydrocarbon Economy were warned about the threat atomic energy posed to their businesses at least 15 years earlier.
The Rockefellers and the foundation that they endowed with stocks and bonds derived from the Standard Oil trust were key leaders in the global hydrocarbon industry.
In 1930, Sir Arthur Eddington, a renowned astrophysicist, warned the World Energy Council that someday, mankind would harness what he called “sub-atomic energy”. He expected this energy source of the stars to quickly replace the “delicacies” of coal and oil. (Natural gas was a bit player in 1930.)
Eddington and his colleagues in astrophysics had determined that the universe didn’t get its power from burning combustible fuels like coal and oil. Instead, the stars that had been intensely emitting light and heat for billions of years had to be fueled from energy stored inside atomic nuclei.
Since it would be difficult to compete with such a powerful, dense fuel source, a different tactic was necessary. Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) was a known propaganda tool. The Rockefeller family were world experts in propaganda and are recognized as the beneficiaries of some of its earliest campaigns.
Does coincidence explain why Muller, a scientist who had identified a potentially worrisome characteristic of atomic radiation, began getting support and career interventions from the Rockefeller Foundation during the same year that Eddington gave a speech warning about the possibility that “delicacies like coal and oil” might someday be replaced by atomic energy?
Arranging a job for Muller in 1945
In the fall of 1944, just two months after his daughter’s birth, Muller’s boss notified him that his wartime job as a teacher at Amherst College would end in June 1945. There was no place for Muller as permanent faculty began returning from wartime assignments.
Even though he had not enjoyed teaching undergraduates, Muller was deeply concerned. After making several inquiries and appeals to friends, he almost gave up hope of finding a suitable job in academia.
He talked about leaving academia for the business world. That prospect worried his wife, Thea. She was reasonably confident that someone would hire Muller as a researcher or professor, but she didn’t think he would succeed as a businessman starting with no experience at age 54.
As had happened at several other transitional points in Muller’s career, patrons from the RF intervened in Muller’s job search. They made an arrangement with Indiana University to provide a recurring grant large enough to pay Muller’s salary and to provide him with laboratory space. The grant was large enough to cover the cost of several graduate students.
Even though Muller had a decent reputation as an experimental biologist, he also had a reputation as a poor teacher of undergrads, a challenging political history, and an irritating habit of claiming scientific priority to the point of alienating current and former colleagues.
Despite reservations, Indiana University agreed to the RF’s offer and hired Muller starting in the fall of 1945. (Ref for previous 4 paragraphs: Carlson, Elof A. “Genes, Radiation and Society: The Life and Work of H. J. Muller”, 1981, Cornell University Press, pp 284-288)
Here is how the Rockefeller Foundation’s 1945 annual report explained its decision to give IU a grant of $95,500 over a six year period.
Professor Muller, who joined the staff of Indiana University in July 1945, is generally recognized as one of the leading geneticists of the world. In 1927, while at the University of Texas, Professor Muller demonstrated that X-rays produce mutations or heritable variations in Drosophila flies.
By this method the mutation rate could be speeded up to 150 times the natural rate, and entirely new forms could be created. With the assistance of a Guggenheim fellowship, Professor Muller introduced his irradiation techniques to European workers, and later, at the invitation of the Russian Government, became an investigator in the laboratories of the Russian Academy of Science, where he trained a group of young Russian scientists in modern theories and methods of genetics research.From Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report, 1945 p. 159
Leaders at Indiana University realized what a good deal they had made when Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize a little more than a year after he joined the faculty at IU.
It’s possible that the Rockefeller Foundation, with its worldwide network of science funding organizations and grateful scientists who had received research grants and fellowships from the Foundation, played a role in the Prize selection process.
Planting and nurturing seeds of doubt regarding radiation tolerance
Through the end of World War II, the prevailing model of radiation health effects was a threshold model in which doses below a certain level were presumed to be harmless. The generally accepted view was that humans could tolerate a certain amount of radiation and recover from any effects that it might have. International radiation protection advisory bodies established a “tolerance dose” with a ten fold safety margin below the first signs of measurable harm.
Adherence to tolerance dose limits did an effective job of protecting the tens of thousands of workers exposed to radioactive materials as a result of their work with the Manhattan Project. Keeping doses below the limits wasn’t too difficult as long as workers were properly trained and equipment was properly designed.
But Muller actively pushed a radically different model. He claimed during his Nobel Prize speech that his research proved there wasn’t any threshold. Muller wanted the world to accept his assertion that every dose of radiation, down to a single gamma ray, posed a threat to mankind’s genetic heritage.
They leave, we believe, no escape from the conclusion that there is no threshold dose, and that the individual mutations result from individual “hits”, producing genetic effects in their immediate neighborhood.H. J. Muller, Nobel Prize speech Medicine or Physiology 1946.
Since he wasn’t much of a teacher anyway, Muller’s Indiana University bosses gave him plenty of time to travel and participate in various radiation protection committees. Muller’s grant money from the RF paid for the trips. In addition to promoting his University and its genetics program, he took advantage of his prestige to repeatedly advance his no-threshold model.
The Nobel Prize also helped him obtain speaking gigs and made him a quotable source in various media outlets, especially including the New York Times. That “paper of record” reached an influential audience. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the publisher, was a Rockefeller Foundation trustee from 1939-1957.
Convincingly replacing tolerance dose with a no threshold model
The period from December 1953 through the summer of 1954 was a heady time for atomic energy development. During that period, President Eisenhower announced his “Atoms for Peace Program”, began the Shippingport Nuclear Power demonstration plant and initiated a revision of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to enable the development of a commercial nuclear power industry.
Perhaps stimulated by that progress, in the summer of 1954 the Rockefeller Foundation contracted with the National Academy of Sciences to perform a review of the biological effects of atomic radiation.
Since the effort to discredit the Atomic Energy Commission and its weapons testing program had already begun in earnest, the RF’s request was framed and promoted as seeking an independent review of the science associated with radiation exposure.
The Genetics Sub-Committee received special attention; the RF nominated Warren Weaver, a mathematician who had been directing the RF’s natural sciences research programs for more than 20 years, to be the committee’s chairman.
With Muller’s confident, assertive thought leadership and the help of Weaver’s patient and skillful consensus (pg. 506-507) building, the Genetics Committee produced a sufficiently scary report claiming that “from a genetics perspective” all doses of radiation are harmful.
That report was released on June 12, 1956. It was reprinted in full in the June 13, 1956 issue of the New York Times along with a front page, top right column headline that shouted “SCIENTISTS TERM RADIATION A PERIL TO FUTURE OF MAN.”
A slightly modified version of the report was published in the June issue of Science magazine.
After the first summary report was published in 1956, there was virtual editorial unanimity in the nation’s newspapers that “the report should be read in its entirety to be appreciated” and that it deserved the close attention of all concerned citizens.From National Academy of Sciences biographical memoir of Warren Weaver p. 507
In 1956, after the NAS report on the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation established the “no safe dose” assertion as the genetic consensus model, the RF gave Indiana University another big grant.
During 1956 The Rockefeller Foundation made nine grants totaling $991,000 for research in genetics. Four were made in the United States, the largest, $350,000, to Indiana University for the work of Professors H , J. Muller, T. M . Sonneborn, and R, E. Cleland.From Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report, 1956 p. 28
That one was sufficient to keep paying Muller for the rest of his life; $350K went much further in 1956 than it does today. He was 66 at the time the grant was made. The RF stopped funding genetics research at Indiana University after Muller was no longer there.
Note: This post was substantially revised for clarity and better references on Feb 26, 2020.
Sources: A major source of detailed information on Muller’s life is “Genes, Radiation and Society: The life and work of H. J. Muller” written by Elof Axel Carlson. Carlson was a student and a fan of H. J. Muller. His spin on the facts included above is a bit different, but he did an excellent job of teasing out the details. Dr. Ed Calabrese has published an informative, incredibly well documented series of papers on H. J. Muller’s influence on the Genetics Committee report. Grant information is derived from the Rockefeller Foundation annual reports, especially those for 1945 and 1956.