Sager, Ruth (1918–1997)

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Sager, Ruth (1918–1997)

American geneticist. Born on February 7, 1918, in Chicago, Illinois; died of cancer on March 29, 1997, in Brookline, Massachusetts; graduated from the University of Chicago, 1938; Rutgers University, M.S., 1944; Columbia University, Ph.D., 1948; married Arthur Pardee.

Ruth Sager distinguished herself early in her career with a major discovery in the field of genetics. At a time when few women were represented in the sciences, Sager's investigations into the location of genetic material in cells changed the direction of genetic research. Following her groundbreaking discovery in 1953, she taught and conducted research at some of the most prestigious scientific and medical institutions in the United States.

Sager was born in Chicago in 1918 and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1938. Following the completion of an M.S. in plant physiology in 1944 at Rutgers University, she continued her studies at Columbia, receiving a Ph.D. in genetics in 1948. She served as a Merck Fellow for three years at the National Research Council, and then became an assistant in biochemistry at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later Rockefeller University). With support from the U.S. Public Health Service and the National Science Foundation, she began her investigations into genetic theory.

Challenging the prevailing notion regarding the location of the genetic material in cells, Sager examined alternative theories that suggested the possibility of a second genetic system governing heredity existing outside the chromosomes. In 1953, while conducting experiments in the cells of the green alga Chlamydomonas, she discovered a gene regulating sensitivity to streptomycin outside the chromosomal structure in the cells. Further experimentation revealed three significant factors: many non-chromosomal genes in the plant could be passed on by either the male or the female partner in sexual reproduction; such genes controlled a range of hereditary characteristics; and these genes had the ability to replicate and remain active throughout several generations. Sager's findings pointed to a new paradigm for genetic research.

For the next 20 years, Sager's career led her to research posts at several different institutions, including her alma mater, Columbia University, where she was research associate in zoology from 1955 until she advanced to senior research associate in 1961. Beginning in 1966, she served as professor of biology at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She was appointed a Guggenheim Research Fellow in 1972–73. By 1975, she was on the staff of Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an affiliate of Harvard University Medical School, while also serving as professor of cellular genetics at Harvard Medical School. Sager retired from the school as professor emerita in 1988, but continued working at Dana-Farber, eventually becoming chief of cancer genetics there. Her groundbreaking research merited her election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977. Having devoted herself to research in cancer genetics, Sager herself died of cancer of the bladder at her home in Brookline, Massachusetts, on March 29, 1997.


McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

"Ruth Sager, 79," in The Day [New London, CT]. April 4, 1997.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.