Glass, H(iram) Bentley

views updated

Glass, H(iram) Bentley

(b. 17 January 1906 in Laichowfu (now Yexian), Shandong, China; d. 16 January 2005 in Boulder, Colorado), geneticist who studied mutations caused by radiation as well as the genetic basis of racial difference; he was outspoken in his defense of academic freedom in science and of racial integration, and he also warned of the dangers of testing nuclear warheads.

Glass was born in China, where his parents, Wiley B. Glass and Eunice (Taylor) Glass, were Baptist missionaries. After completing, in 1922, his early schooling in China at the North China American School, he traveled to the United States in 1923 to attend Decatur Baptist College, in Texas. He then transferred to Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, in 1925, earning a BA in biology a year later. After teaching high school for two years, Glass returned to Baylor, earning an MA in biology in 1929, and then went to the University of Texas at Austin, earning a PhD in biology in 1932. At the latter school he worked with Hermann Joseph Muller, who had recently found the first evidence linking X-rays to genetic mutations. Glass continued to conduct research in this area in his postdoctoral work in Norway and Germany. He hurriedly left Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and completed his postdoctoral studies at the University of Missouri–Columbia.

On 10 August 1934 Glass married Suzanne G. Smith, with whom he would have a daughter and a son. Also in 1934 he began teaching biology at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. Four years later, he moved to Goucher College in Baltimore, and in 1948 he was appointed as associate professor of biology at Johns Hopkins University, where he became a full professor in 1952. During this time Glass continued researching the relationship between high-energy radiation and mutations, working with Drosophila (fruit flies). He also conceived of the important role of genetic drift in evolutionary change. According to the concept of genetic drift, the genetic makeup of a population is established not just through the predominance of advantageous traits, as Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection suggests, but also through random events. As not all genes are passed on to succeeding generations, some genes may therefore be lost by chance, causing the genetic makeup of a population to “drift,” or change randomly, over time.

The mathematical methods developed by Glass in these studies were used by population geneticists to show how human racial groups have no totally distinctive genetic makeup, such that, for example, about one-quarter of the genes of modern-day African Americans originated in the white population. In considering these results, Glass became an outspoken advocate of racial integration. He also espoused other liberal causes, arguing against the violations of academic freedom that occurred during the anti-Communist political crusades of the 1950s. His liberal social views were closely tied to his religious views, and he ever remained a devout Baptist, teaching Sunday school during his years in Baltimore. In 1960 his civil libertarian stance led him to refuse membership on the Maryland Radiation Control Advisory Board because acceptance would have entailed signing a loyalty oath against Communism.

In 1965 Glass accepted a joint appointment as both vice president of academic affairs and distinguished professor of biology at the newly established State University of New York at Stony Brook. He was influential in the building of a strong science program there, not only in biology but also in chemistry and physics. He remained on the faculty at Stony Brook until his retirement in 1976, but long after this time he was active in a number of scientific and political endeavors. Glass’s son died in 1991, and his wife died two years later. Glass himself died of pneumonia in a hospital in Boulder, Colorado, on 16 January 2005, just one day short of his ninety-ninth birthday.

Over the course of his career, Glass produced several hundred scientific papers as well as a number of books. The latter were aimed at explaining aspects of science to the general reader and reflect Glass’s interest in science’s societal impact. His books include Genes and the Man (1943), Science and Liberal Education (1960), Science and Ethical Values (1981), and Progress or Catastrophe: The Nature of Biological Science and Its Impact on Human Society (1985).

Glass maintained a fifty-year association with the Quarterly Review of Biology, beginning in 1945 when he became assistant editor. He served as editor of the journal from 1958 to 1965 and remained on its editorial board into the 1990s. He was also interested in biology education and from 1959 to 1965 acted as chair of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a government-sponsored effort to improve science education that produced three highly influential biology textbooks in the 1960s. In another education-related endeavor, Glass served on the Baltimore County School Board from 1954 to 1958 and pushed for the desegregation of the city’s schools. Also during the 1950s, he was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Advisory Committee for Biology and Medicine.

As all his efforts indicate, Glass was a scientist very much involved in the public-policy aspects of the profession. He served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest organization of scientists in the United States, and also as president of the American Association of University Professors, in 1958, and of Phi Beta Kappa. His vocal defense of desegregation and of nuclear disarmament earned him close surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Glass’s long-term influence was probably due as much to his public-policy work as to his scientific research. In a 1957 interview for the Saturday Review, he admitted, “Yes, I suppose I am diffusing my energies. I may as a consequence know less about Drosophila than I should, but rather more, I hope, about life.” He saw his endeavors as varied approaches to the goal of educating the public about the scientific enterprise while at the same time pushing scientists to accept social responsibility for their work.

Glass’s papers are in the archives of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Audra Wolfe wrote a biographical sketch of Glass, “Bentley Glass, Century’s Son,” in the American Philosophical Society’s Mendel Newsletter 12 (Feb. 2003). A tribute is Frank C. Erk, “Remembering Bentley Glass,” Quarterly Review of Biology 80, no. 2 (June 2005): 165–173. Obituaries are in the New York Times (20 Jan. 2005) and Washington Post (21 Jan. 2005).

Maura C. Flannery