Through the efforts of Elizabeth Shull Russell (born 1913), laboratory mice populations—which include dozens of strains exhibiting particular characteristics that make them desirable for research—are available to scientists worldwide. Russell has also used the mice for her own ongoing research in mammalian genetics and the study of such conditions as hereditary anemias, muscular dystrophy, cancer, and aging.
The Roscoe B. Jackson Laboratory in scenic Bar Harbor, Maine, has been the professional home of geneticist Elizabeth Shull Russell since the late 1930s. For the last five decades it has also been the birthplace of millions of laboratory mice which have been meticulously bred and characterized by Russell and the center's staff.
Russell was born on May 1, 1913, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her mother, Margaret Jeffrey Buckley, held a master's degree in zoology and was a teacher at Grinnell College in Iowa during an era when few women even attended college. Her father, Aaron Franklin Shull, was a zoologist and geneticist who taught at the University of Michigan. Both the Buckleys and the Shulls had scientists in their families. Elizabeth's uncle on her mother's side was a physicist, and on her father's side there was a geneticist, a plant physiologist and a botanical artist. Her parents met in 1908 when both attended a summer course at the laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, New York. It seemed quite natural that Russell became interested in the plants and animals in her surroundings; as a girl she carefully catalogued every flowering plant near their summer home. Entering the University of Michigan at the age of sixteen, Russell graduated in 1933 with a degree in zoology. This was during the midst of the Great Depression, however, and few jobs were available teaching science. Upon hearing of a scholarship program at Columbia University, her father convinced her to participate in it. Russell's coursework at Columbia included genetics, which was to prove her greatest interest. She became influenced by a paper written by Sewall Wright of the University of Chicago, entitled "Physiological and Evolutionary Theories of Dominance." He proposed that the specific way in which characteristics are inherited must be from either the nucleic acids or proteins on the chromosomes (geneticists now know that inheritance is controlled by the nucleic acid DNA). Upon receiving her master's degree, Russell went to the University of Chicago where she obtained an assistantship and did further graduate work under Wright. Her doctoral thesis explored the effect of genes in the pigmentation of guinea pigs.
Russell received her Ph.D. at Chicago in 1937 and married a fellow graduate student, William L. Russell. They moved to Bar Harbor, Maine, when he was appointed to a position at the Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory. As was the general practice of most institutions at the time, only one member of a family could be employed by the laboratory, so she was invited to work as an independent investigator, which she did from 1937 to 1946.
While pursuing her research, Russell spent much of her time at the laboratory working with precollege, college and graduate students that came to Jackson each summer. That first summer of 1937 she had twelve summer students. As several other members of the Jackson family were also named Elizabeth, she soon became known as Tibby, a name that stuck. Over the next several years, the Russells started a family. They would eventually have three sons and a daughter together.
Although Russell had begun her investigations into how a gene controls characteristics by using fruit flies, during the 1940s she helped build up a population of laboratory mice that could be used in researching many more genetic questions. She characterized each strain, whether it be by coat color or the presence of a hereditary disease. With great precision Russell managed the genetically controlled inbred populations, and in 1946 she officially became a member of the research staff. The following year, she and her husband divorced. Russell—with four young children—now pursued her career in earnest even as the lab was starting to appreciate her great potential as a researcher.
In October, 1947, a devastating fire spread across Bar Harbor, destroying the Jackson Laboratory. Almost one hundred thousand laboratory mice perished—animals which had been carefully bred by Russell and others. In the years following, however, the team helped to once again build up the mouse population.
One day in 1951, while studying the source of mouse skin pigmentation, Russell looked in a cage and observed a most unusual mouse, a female that was dragging its feet in a peculiar way. The mouse was not injured. It appeared that it was born with some kind of muscular defect and Russell named it "Funnyfoot." By breeding Funnyfoot's brothers and sisters, the same trait cropped up in subsequent generations, leading the team to conclude that Funnyfoot and her related offspring had a genetic disease similar in some ways to muscular dystrophy in humans. This particular fact became of great interest to other researchers working on muscular dystrophy. At once, scientists flooded the lab with requests for mice with the funnyfoot trait. There was a big problem, however—the funnyfoot females were unable to reproduce and the mice died young.
Russell devised a plan for breeding more funnyfoot mice, transplanting the ovaries of funnyfoot females into those of normal females without the characteristic. The ovaries contained egg cells (ova) in which the chromosomes carried the faulty gene. When the normal females mated, many funnyfoot offspring were produced, which were then sent to researchers. Alongside the cages of funnyfoot mice were many other strains that were meticulously bred by Russell and her team. Each group of mice and its ancestry were clearly labeled and recorded. Some strains, for instance, had hereditary diseases like anemia, while others had characteristics that made them sterile or prone to tumors. Other mice were to be used for research on blood disease, the immune system, the endocrine system, diabetes, nutrition, or aging.
By 1953, Russell was named staff scientific director at the Jackson Laboratory. The following year she organized a conference at the laboratory where—for the first time— scientists from around the globe were invited to contribute what they were studying about mammalian genetics and its relationship to cancer. The conference was a success and in 1957 Russell became senior staff scientist. The following year Russell was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to review what was currently known about mammalian physiological genetics; the grant provided time and money to compile all the current research in one place, resulting in reference material useful to scientists the world over.
During her directorship, Russell's responsibilities were twofold—to provide the research mice that helped support the lab financially and to work on her areas of interest. One very important area of research at the lab under Russell involved studying blood cells of mice, especially the cells which provide the immune response (the ability to fight off invading foreign substances). This research became very important in an era in which there were a growing number of organ transplants. These mice were used in experiments that determined when tissue is accepted or rejected by an organism.
Russell also took an avid interest in blood hemoglobin—a substance which carries oxygen to all parts of a mammal's body—and was especially curious about how the hemoglobins develop. A mammal fetus inside its mother (including humans) has hemoglobin from a very early stage; after birth, however, that hemoglobin changes both its structure and the site of its production. Some of Russell's work concerned the processes of these developmental changes.
Other research topics Russell investigated include different kinds of cancers, blood diseases, and the process of aging. She has written or collaborated on over a hundred scientific papers and several books. Since 1978, Russell has been senior staff scientist emeritus. Throughout her long active career, Russell's role has also been one of mentor to many of the students that have come through the Jackson Laboratory, either as permanent staff working together on biochemistry and microbiology or the many summer graduate students that come from all over the world.
Russell has been made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. During the 1970s she was an active member of the Academy's Council, acting to edit and evaluate scientific papers. She was also a member of the Genetics Society of America, becoming its vice president in 1974 and president from 1975 to 1976. In 1983 she was made a member of the American Philosophical Society. Russell holds an honorary degree from Ricker College and was a trustee of the University of Maine and the College of the Atlantic. Because of her work on the aging of mice she was asked to be a member of the advisory council to the National Institute of Aging. By attending discussion groups at the laboratory, she continued to closely monitor trends in genetics research.
Further Reading on Elizabeth Shull Russell
Noble, Iris, Contemporary Women Scientists of America, Messner, 1979, pp. 123-137.
Russell, Elizabeth Shull, Telephone interview with Barbara A. Branca, conducted February 18, 1994.