Oak Ridge’s Liane B. Rus­sell has led a very im­pact­ful life

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - REGION - BY BRIT­TANY CROCKER

There are a few things in day-to-day life we take for granted. Stop signs are red. Su­per­mar­ket bread comes sliced. Eye­brows grow above your eyes. The Y chro­mo­some de­ter­mines the male bi­o­log­i­cal sex, and if you go to the den­tist and you’re a woman, you’re go­ing to get asked if you think you might be preg­nant be­fore you get an X-ray.

The woman to thank for those last two things is for­mer Oak Ridge National Lab­o­ra­tory sci­en­tist Liane Brauch Rus­sell, or “Lee,” to those who know her.

Dur­ing her time at the lab, the Aus­trian-born sci­en­tist stud­ied ra­di­a­tion bi­ol­ogy and its ef­fects on em­bryos in ORNL’s “mouse house,” which was ex­actly what it sounded like: a lab­o­ra­tory for ex­per­i­ment­ing on mice.

Now at 94 years old, Rus­sell re­mains sharp as a tack. She still lives in Oak Ridge in the same gov­ern­ment-as­signed Type-D Cemesto

house she and her hus­band moved into in 1951.

In Novem­ber, Re­becca Gaus, Rus­sell’s day-shift nurse, an­swered the door and pointed to the beau­ti­fully re­mod­eled sit­ting room.

Sur­rounded by care­fully shelved books and art col­lected over a life­time of work and travel, Rus­sell sat in her fa­vorite blue chair pre­pared to re­call her ven­er­a­ble ca­reer.


Born Liane Brauch, Rus­sell spent the first 15 years of her life in Vi­enna, Austria. Her fa­ther was a chemist and he wanted her to go into the same pro­fes­sion when she grew up, but she loved an­i­mals, which would later pro­pel her to­ward bi­ol­ogy.

Rus­sell was just a kid when the Nazis came to Austria. In 2007, she told the Oral His­tory of Hu­man Ge­net­ics Project she re­mem­bers spend­ing days flush­ing books down the toi­let. Her fam­ily had no fire­place to burn them in but did not want to be found with “in­crim­i­nat­ing books” on their way out of the coun­try.

The fam­ily went from Austria to Brus­sels and even­tu­ally to Eng­land, where the Ger­man Bl­itzkrieg would soon be­gin. Nev­er­the­less, she per­sisted in her ed­u­ca­tion, tak­ing Ad­vanced Place­ment sci­ence cour­ses with a univer­sity un­til she fin­ished high school.

In 1941 her fam­ily got their United States visas and headed to New York, where Rus­sell en­rolled in a col­lege that was free to New York City res­i­dents. She fell in love with bi­ol­ogy and em­bry­ol­ogy and set her­self on the path to what would be­come her life’s work.

She met Bill Rus­sell, the man who would be­come her hus­band, at a sum­mer pro­gram work­ing with the mice at Jack­son Lab­o­ra­tory in Maine. They soon went to work to­gether in Oak Ridge, where they built their own mouse lab.


“There wasn’t a mouse house when we ar­rived,” she said. “We were sup­posed to re­ally look into the hered­i­tary ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion, which had not re­ally been done be­fore ex­cept in a very small project in Rochester where my hus­band worked,” she said.

The two set up shop in a room in the old X-10 Graphite re­ac­tor and got to work.

By map­ping ges­ta­tion pe­ri­ods in hu­mans and mice, Rus­sell found fe­tal de­vel­op­ment is most vul­ner­a­ble to ra­di­a­tion dur­ing the first few weeks of preg­nancy.

“Mouse de­vel­op­ment is only 19 days, so for the ma­jor mal­for­ma­tions, they had to be ir­ra­di­ated some­time in the first 11 or 12 days,” she said. “If it was in the first four or five days, there were no mal­for­ma­tions, the em­bryo would ei­ther die or be nor­mal.”

Hu­man de­vel­op­ment could not be com­pared in days, how­ever. She found that hu­man em­bryos were most vul­ner­a­ble dur­ing the first seven weeks of preg­nancy.

She es­tab­lished the 14-day rule, which is the rea­son ra­di­ol­o­gists ask women if they could be preg­nant be­fore per­form­ing an X-ray. Ac­cord­ing to her rule, non-ur­gent di­ag­nos­tic ra­di­a­tion should be con­ducted in the first 14 days of a woman’s men­strual cy­cle to rule out the pos­si­bil­ity of an early preg­nancy.

She con­tin­ued to study mouse mu­ta­tions and even­tu­ally found that cer­tain ge­netic mu­ta­tions, such as fur color, only af­fected the fe­male mice, even­tu­ally lead­ing her and her col­leagues to dis­cover that only one X chro­mo­some in fe­males is ac­tive, and the Y chro­mo­some was what de­ter­mined male sex.

She pub­lished sev­eral pa­pers on her find­ings and even­tu­ally ex­panded her re­search beyond the ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion to those of other agents, such as drugs, chem­i­cals or fuel.


Rus­sell said she thought work­ing in ge­net­ics was one of the eas­ier sci­en­tific fields for women to get into in the 1950s.

“I think in physics women had a hard time,” she said. Women weren’t even al­lowed into parts of the Univer­sity of Chicago’s met­al­lur­gi­cal lab­o­ra­tory in the early parts of the Man­hat­tan Project.

“In those days and maybe even to­day, any of the ones that were am­bi­tious or com­pet­i­tive, they were just called abra­sive,” she said. “Those qual­i­ties for a male sci­en­tist were very well ac­cepted, though not al­ways very eth­i­cal. But, you had a fe­male sci­en­tist and she’s ‘abra­sive.’ Of course, some of them were, but so were a lot of the male ones,” she laughed.

The lab­o­ra­tory ter­mi­nated her job when she be­came preg­nant with her first child, which, she was told, was a safety pro­to­col to pro­tect the woman and the baby.

But, lab­o­ra­tory of­fi­cials would have to do bet­ter to con­vince a woman who stud­ied the ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion on preg­nan­cies for a liv­ing.

“They kept telling me I couldn’t work be­fore I was just about to de­liver,” she said with a laugh.

“And I said you’re pretty wrong, be­cause it was the be­gin­ning of my preg­nancy you should have wor­ried about me.”

Rus­sell said she thinks the field has be­come more ac­cept­ing of fe­male sci­en­tists since she started her ca­reer, but that women are still the mi­nor­ity.

“I don’t know if that’s so much be­cause of how many peo­ple are go­ing into the field or how many em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties there are,” she said. “My im­pres­sion is it’s be­come much more wel­come, but you know there is still the glass ceil­ing for salaries.”


Rus­sell is re­tired, but she re­mains in­flu­en­tial in Oak Ridge and in sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ties.

At her home, she de­scribed her grow­ing dis­con­tent with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion for wag­ing what she and many other sci­en­tists call the “war on sci­ence.”

She said she was par­tic­u­larly alarmed when the EPA re­placed its sci­en­tific ad­vi­sory board mem­bers with peo­ple who fa­vor the com­mer­cial in­dus­try.

“To get rid of that kind of ex­per­tise is rather stupid and wicked. They are rid­ding them­selves of in­for­ma­tion that is needed,” she said.

“[Ad­vi­sory boards] gather all of the in­for­ma­tion that is avail­able, point out what needs to be done, where the in­for­ma­tion was weak,” she said. “It’s an in­cred­i­ble con­tri­bu­tion made by the out­side sci­en­tific com­mit­tees. They do a lot of hard work and don’t get paid for it ex­cept for their travel and maybe a meal or two.”

One out­let for her ac­tivism is the Ten­nessee Cit­i­zens for Wilder­ness Plan­ning. Con­tin­u­ing her love for na­ture and an­i­mals, she be­gan the group in 1966. She still writes and pub­lishes its news­let­ters from her home.

In 2013, ORNL es­tab­lished the Liane B. Rus­sell Dis­tin­guished Early Ca­reer Fel­low­ship, which helps post-doc­toral women and mi­nor­ity sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers es­tab­lish their long-term ca­reers by work­ing at the lab­o­ra­tory.

Rus­sell Fel­lows have con­ducted re­search in ge­net­ics — like their name­sake — and also in fields like nu­clear astro­physics, nano­ma­te­ri­als and com­puter sci­ence.

“In my life, I was very for­tu­nate in be­ing given op­por­tu­ni­ties to pur­sue my own ideas in ex­cit­ing re­search ar­eas,” Rus­sell wrote for ORNL when the pro­gram was an­nounced. “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.”

“I’m par­tic­u­larly hon­ored to have my name at­tached to this pro­gram,” she wrote.


Aus­trian-born sci­en­tist Liane B. Rus­sell is cred­ited with es­tab­lish­ing the 14-day rule for di­ag­nos­tic ra­di­a­tion. Work­ing in the Oak Ridge, Tenn., “mouse house,” she also dis­cov­ered the Y-chro­mo­some de­ter­mines the male bi­o­log­i­cal sex.


Now 94, Liane Rus­sell still lives in the house she and her hus­band were as­signed in 1951. There, she pub­lishes the Ten­nessee Cit­i­zens for Wilder­ness Plan­ning news­let­ter.

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