East, Edward Murray

views updated May 11 2018

East, Edward Murray

(b. Du Quoin, Illinois, 4 October 1879; d. Boston, Massachusetts, 9 November 1938)


East was the only son of William Harvey East, a mechanical engineer, and Sarah Granger Woodruff. The family on both sides had a long history of scholarly pursuits. After graduating from high school at fifteen, he worked for two years in a machine shop before entering the Case School of Applied Science (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland in 1897. He found Case intellectually too narrow and left the next year for the University of Illinois, where he took his bachelor’s (1900), master’s (1904), and doctorate (1907) degrees. In 1903 he married Mary Lawrence Boggs; they had two daughters. East was ill for much of his life, and this may account for his irascibility with some of his students and colleagues.

East was trained as a chemist at Illinois. While a student there he assisted C. G. Hopkins of the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station on selection experiments to alter the protein and fat content of corn. His job was to conduct the chemical analysis of the kernels. He soon became dissatisfied with this perfunctory job and wanted to elucidate the genetic mechanisms involved. East was especially intrigued by the decrease in yield which accompanied the success of the selection experiments. He wondered if increased inbreeding in the selected stock caused the decrease in yield, and if so, why. He began experiments on inbreeding in corn before he left the University of Illinois in October 1905 for a position at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. He remained there four years and conducted numerous experiments on inbreeding and outbreeding in tobacco, potatoes, and corn. These four years of intense experimentation were crucial for East’s development as a scientist and determined to a great extent his later scientific interests. In 1909 he received an offer from the Bussey Institution of Harvard University. He accepted, became a full professor in 1914, and remained there until his death.

While conducting experiments on inbreeding and outbreeding between 1905 and 1908, East was struck by the problem of accounting for the inheritance of continuously varying characters. It was widely believed at this time that such blending inheritance could not be accounted for by Mendelian inheritance. East, along with H. Nilsson-Ehle of the Agricultural Research Station at Svalöf, Sweden, showed experimentally that some cases of blending inheritance could indeed be interpreted in terms of Mendelian inheritance. This experimental result was extremely important because Mendelian inheritance could then be seen to cover the entire spectrum of inherited characters, whereas before it was generally known to apply only to phenotypic characters inherited as a unit. East’s 1910 paper on this topic, “A Mendelian Interpretation of Variation That Is Apparently Continuous,” was particularly influential in America because Nilsson-Ehle’s papers were written in German and published in a Swedish journal generally unavailable in the United States. After 1910 East published other papers on the inheritance of quantitatively varying characters. Perhaps the most important of these was his 1916 paper on the inheritance of size in Nicotiana, published in the first volume of the new journal Genetics. East’s work on the problem of quantitative inheritance was widely known and hailed by other geneticists.

Another result of East’s experiments in inbreeding and outbreeding was his interpretation of the role of sexual reproduction in the production of heritable variation. An understanding of heritable variation was of course crucial for an understanding of evolution. East popularized the now well-known view that sexual reproduction leads to recombination in the germ plasm and thus to vastly increased numbers of heritable variations. His 1918 article, “The Role of Reproduction in Evolution,” came at a time when geneticists were just beginning to understand the importance of sexual reproduction as an immense source of heritable variation upon which selection could act. Thus he contributed significantly to a major tenet in all modern genetic theories of evolution.

By 1912 East had begun planning a book proposing a general theory of the effects of inbreeding and outbreeding. This book, Inbreeding and Outbreeding: Their Genetic and Sociological Significance, was finally published in 1919 with the collaboration of Donald F. Jones. The basic theory proposed by East was that inbreeding in a genetically diverse stock caused increased homozygosity. Believing with the Drosophila workers (Thomas Hunt Morgan et al). that most mutations were recessive and deleterious, he concluded that the increased homozygosity caused by inbreeding should generally be accompanied by detrimental effects. The theory also explained why inbreeding was not necessarily deleterious in all cases. Unless deleterious recessives were present, inbreeding caused no ill effects. Outbreeding of course had the opposite effect of increasing heterozygosity and was often accompanied by heterosis, or hybrid vigor. In later years East continued to work on the physiological interpretation of heterosis and published a long paper on the subject only two years before his death. The theory of inbreeding and outbreeding was not conceived by East alone, but the 1919 book was well conceived and the theory presented with a wealth of evidence. It was widely read and cited by geneticists.

From the beginning of his work at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, East was concerned with the problems of the commercial production of agricultural products. With G. H. Shull he pioneered in developing a new method of corn breeding which revolutionized the production of corn in America and elsewhere. He also published papers on the improvement of potato and tobacco yields.

During World War I, East served as a chairman of the Botanical Raw Products Committee of the National Research Council and as acting chief of the Statistical Division of the U.S. Food Administration. While serving in these capacities he became immersed in the problems of world food production, overpopulation, and eugenic improvement of mankind. The gravity of these problems was brought home to him by the effects of World War I and by reading Malthus’ Essay on Population. He became convinced that biologists had an obligation to speak out on the social implications of their science, and after 1920 his major efforts went in this direction. East believed that there was a genetic aspect to nearly all the problems of society; thus geneticists were qualified to speak on social problems. He himself was outspoken on the major social issues of the time. In 1923 he published Mankind at the Crossroads, in 1927 Heredity and Human Affairs, and in 1931 Biology in Human Affairs, a book which he edited and to which he contributed two chapters.

East was very concerned with the problems of overpopulation because he believed that mankind was reproducing faster than the food supply was increasing. He predicted that the world would soon be faced with mass starvation. Believing in the overwhelming importance of heredity as compared with environment, he proposed a eugenic plan of birth control in which the less desirable elements of society would be prevented from having children. This would solve the overpopulation problem and improve mankind at the same time.

Along with many other geneticists East believed that human races differed in their inherent capacities, both physical and mental, and that crosses between divergent races were biologically detrimental. He was firmly convinced that the racial crossing of whites and blacks in the United States should be prevented at all costs because the Negro was an inferior race: “In reality the negro is inferior to the white. This is not hypothesis or supposition; it is a crude statement of actual fact. The negro has given the world no original contribution of high merit” (Inbreeding and Outbreeding, p. 253). East justified his belief in the genetic inferiority of the Negro by pointing to the results of psychological testing of U.S. recruits during World War I. Negroes had scored consistently lower than whites on I.Q, tests. He was unafraid of the prospect that the United States or the world would be inundated by blacks, because he claimed their natural rate of increase was low in comparison with that of whites. He believed the blacks’ only chance for extended survival in the United States was amalgamation with the whites, a possibility he clearly wanted to prevent.

One of East’s major contributions to biology was his influence as a teacher of geneticists. He and William Castle worked together at the Bussey Institution to produce many of the best-known geneticists in the world, including D. F. Jones, Karl Sax, L. J. Stadler, R. A. Brink, L. C. Dunn, and Sewall Wright. East was known to be harsh and unduly critical of his students at times, but clearly his students were successful.

Another way he helped shape genetic research was by his active participation in professional organizations. He was a member of nearly every group of biologists concerned with genetics and its social import and served as an officer on many occasions. East helped found the journal Genetics in 1916 and was on its editorial board for many years. He not only helped direct the progress of genetic research through participation in these activities but also helped direct the interests of other geneticists toward the social implications of their scientific work. Some geneticists were stirred to write about the social implications of genetics because of their opposition to East’s ideas.

East contributed significantly to genetic research. His attempts to portray its social implications were less successful, and on some issues, particularly race, he now seems totally misguided. He appears to have examined his evidence much less carefully when analyzing the social implications of genetics than when analyzing a problem within genetics.


A complete bibliography of East’s work may be found in Donald F. Jones, “Edward Murray East,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 22 (1944), 217–242. This memoir is the only substantial secondary source dealing with the life and work of East.

William B. Provine

Edward Murray East

views updated Jun 08 2018

Edward Murray East

Edward Murray East (1879-1938), an American plant geneticist whose experiments led to the development of hybrid corn, also made distinguished contributions to genetic theory.

Edward M. East was born on Oct. 4, 1879, at Du Quoin, III. After high school he worked in a machine shop and in 1897 entered the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, Ohio. A year later he transferred to the University of Illinois, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in 1901. In 1903 he married Mary Lawrence Boggs.

East became interested in the new field of genetics. As assistant at the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station, he analyzed the protein and fat content of Indian corn grown under an experimental breeding program. After receiving his master of science degree at Illinois in 1904, he became an agronomist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station at New Haven for 4 years. He worked mainly with corn and tobacco but continued his earlier studies with the potato, incorporating these in his doctoral thesis for the University of Illinois in 1907.

Continued experiments on the effects of inbreeding in corn, together with independent work at the nearby Carnegie Institution for Experimental Evolution, finally led East to the development of hybrid corn. This new method of seed production revolutionized corn growing throughout the world.

In 1909 East joined the faculty of the Bussey Institution of Harvard University (later reorganized as a graduate school of applied biology). He continued his corn and tobacco experimentation at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station but also began more theoretical work. He discovered (independently of a Swedish plant breeder) the phenomenon later known as "multiple factors" which provides a Mendelian interpretation for "blending inheritance," previously thought outside of Gregor Mendel's laws. East also made distinguished studies of self-and cross-incompatibility, heterosis, cytoplasmic heredity, and hybridization.

East's work during World War I with the National Research Council and the U.S. Food Administration aroused his interest in the implications of biology for world problems and human affairs. He wrote two popular books warning of impending disaster if the exponential increase in world population was not quickly halted.

East served as president of the American Society of Naturalists (1919) and of the Genetics Society of America (1937). He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences. He died on Nov. 9, 1938, in Boston.

Further Reading

The only source for East's biography is the sketch by Donald F. Jones in the National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, vol. 23 (1945), which contains a complete list of East's publications. □

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