Oak Ridge’s Liane B. Russell has led a very impactful life
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.
THE ROAD TO OAK RIDGE
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.