The Situation in Genetics: Leslie Clarence Dunn’s 1927 Russian Tour

Dunn in Germany 1928, in Dunn Papers, folder: “Photographs #1”. Courtesy of APS Library.

In 2003, I co-authored publication of a transcription of Leslie Clarence Dunn‘s 1927 report on genetics research facilities in Russia. This appeared in the Mendel Newsletter, published by the American Philosophical Society Library as Joe Cain and Iona Layland. 2003. The Situation in Genetics I: Dunn’s 1927 Russian Tour. Mendel Newsletter 12: 10-15. Our transcription is republished here without change. I also encouraged my then doctoral student, Jenny Marie, to publish a similar report published by Dunn on genetics research across Europe. That appeared in a 2004 issue of the Mendel Newsletter. This post reproduces our 2003 article and transcription. Thanks to American Philosophical Society Library for permission to publish Dunn’s piece.

Leslie Clarence Dunn’s 1927 Russian Tour

In 1927, Leslie Clarence Dunn toured Russian and European genetics laboratories under a fellowship funded by the Rockefeller’s International Education Board (IEB). Dunn’s stated goal was to survey the state-of-the-art in “animal genetics and physiology.” After his tour, Dunn submitted two reports to Claude Burton Hutchinson, the IEB’s Director of Agricultural Education and Dunn’s principal contact for his fellowship. This article reprints the first of Dunn’s two reports – a 2 November 1927 letter describing genetics and experimental biology in and around Moscow. (note 1) 

Dunn reported on activities at seven centres:

  • Institute of Experimental Biology (Moscow)
  • old and new Moscow University (Moscow)
  • Laboratory of Experimental Biology of the Zoological Park (Moscow)
  • dairy and poultry farm of the GPU (Intelligence Service) (near Moscow)
  • Experiment Station, Board of Animal Husbandry (near Moscow), also referred to as the Experiment Station for the Central (Moscow District), Animal Breeding Section
  • Genetical Station (Anikowo)

Dunn’s tour was rushed and incomplete. He neither visited systematically nor traveled far outside Moscow. Dunn’s letter also must be read through the lens of someone deeply sympathetic to the Soviet experiment. Despite these qualifications, this letter provides a thought-provoking synchronic directory of Soviet research in genetics and experimental biology during the 1920s. In reply to Dunn’s Russian report, Hutchinson confided, “The situation in Russia is so complex and the problem so vast that the Board is hesitant to undertake activities there until its work in the rest of Europe is somewhat better established and until some of us can find time to go to Russia and make a careful first-hand study of the whole situation. (note 2) 

A future Mendel Newsletter will reprint Dunn’s second letter to Hutchinson, a 26 Jan 1928 report on programs in Britain and northern Europe.3


1 Written from Berlin on his return, the report is Dunn to Hutchinson 2 November 1927, folder: “Hutchinson, CB [white folder],” Dunn Papers, APS Library. Dunn wrote about the Russian leg of his travels first, from Berlin before the International Congress of Genetics. His postal address in Berlin was the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Biologie. Dunn volunteered to write these reports, see his 6 April 1927 letter to Hutchinson.

2 Hutchinson to Dunn 16 November 1927, folder: “Hutchinson, CB [manila folder],” Dunn Papers, APS Library.

3 Dunn to Hutchinson 26 Jan 1928, folder: “Hutchinson, CB [white folder],” Dunn Papers, APS Library. [note added: see Jenny Marie. 2004. The Situation in Genetics II: Dunn’s 1927 European Tour in Mendel Newsletter 13.]

4 Dunn to Hutchinson 6 April 1927, on p. 2, in folder: “Hutchinson, CB [manila folder],” Dunn Papers, APS Library.

5 Hutchinson to Dunn 16 November 1927, folder: “Hutchinson, CB [manila folder],” Dunn Papers, APS Library.

Notes on Historical Editing

Dunn’s letters were typed and show no deletions, insertions, or corrections by the author. Transcription here is literal. Editorial interventions by editors are set within [ ] brackets. No effort has been made to update Dunn’s references. Bold and italics are added by editors. Page transitions are designated by [x|y]. Lines breaks are marked by “/”. Deletions of text by editors are indicated by [ …]. Major deletions are (1) one paragraph on page 1 concerning the logistics of travel to Moscow from Berlin, and (2) three paragraphs on page 7 containing closing comments and requests that IES information be sent to Alexander Gurwitsch in Moscow and E. S. Gumbel in Heidelberg. Thanks to the APS Library for permission to reprint these letters.

Original Mendel Newsletter Article

Cain and Layland 2003 The situation in genetics: Dunn’s 1927 Russian tour


Transcription of Dunn’s Letter

Berlin, November 2, 1927 / Dear Hutchinson,

[…] In Moscow, I spent practically all the time visiting biologists. The chief institute is The Institute of Experimental Biology in Moscow, […], Director professor Nicolai Koltzoff. I stayed there for four days as the guest of the Institute and talked with most of the people. The whole staff numbers about forty and there is a vast amount of work under way in experimental morphology, genetics, physiology, endocrinology, tissue culture, cytology, histology, biochemistry, cancer research, animal behavior and eugenics. Most of the work centers around genetics. Prof. Koltzoff’s work is chiefly in the chemistry and inheritance of blood characters – iso-agglutinin groups, precipitin reactions and most recently in the quite new and interesting field of the inheritance of the catalase content of the blood in many animals including man, fowl, guinea pig, sheep, cow and others. The largest department is pure genetics under Professor Tschetverikoff; this includes the largest group of Drosophila workers in Europe – six besides Tschetverikoff – and I was greatly impressed with the men (and especially with Tschetverikoff) and with their problems and work. They have described and located a large number of new characters in several species of Drosophila. Their guiding idea is to study the geographic distribution of Drosophila varieties and mutants in the wild, and to sample a number of wild populations for type and frequency of mutations. Their study of wild populations of D. melanogaster in the Caucasus has shown that nearly all wild flies are heterozygous for at least one mutant character and the breeding experiments from the Caucasus sample of melanogaster have disclosed 32 new genes, many of them of considerable interest and use in Drosophila work. They are also searching for new insect [1|2] material to use in breeding experiments with which to supplement and test their results from Drosophila. The best man of this group seems to me to be Gershenson, a young man recently out of the University who has done two excellent pieces of work in Drosophila and who will probably be a brilliant investigator. He would be my first choice as a man to be helped to continue in research and to be sent sometime to work with Morgan. Professor Tschetverikoff is the ideal leader of this group. He published little himself but is content to work thru’ and with his advanced students and assistants. In this group also belongs Dr. and Mrs. Kosminsky who are working on the genetics and cytology of intersexuality in Lymantria and have already shown that intersexes may occur within the same pure strain and that intersexuality may be inherited thru’ the male which are new points of importance at present difficult to reconcile with Goldschmidt’s theory and results. Shuvago, the cytologist, has studied the chromosomes of the fowl, sheep and other animals and is now at work on a new photographic method for studying the chromatin of the resting nucleus. Rosskin working with transplantable tumors has grown human tumors in mice and has discovered new transplantable tumors in guinea pigs, and has made a new study of transplantable tumors in fowls and ducks, and has discovered strain differences in receptivity to tumors in fowls – a new fact of great importance. Mrs. Koltzoff is studying the inheritance of educability in rats and has by selection bred families which now differ considerably in the speed with which a maze is learned. An important new discovery at the Institute is the effects of a specially prepared testis extract on characters of the blood and nervous system of senile or abnormal individuals. Two years experience indicates a rejuvenating effect which may be of therapeutic value in human medicine. I did not go into the work in experimental morphology (transplantation, regeneration etc.) or tissue culture in detail but was well impressed by the men in charge of these two departments. The Institute is housed in what was once a large private house, which however serves the purpose of a laboratory quite well. Its equipment is incomplete but good, much of it homemade. The library is good in respect of journals for the past two or three years. It is handicapped by the absence of back files of many important journals, and by almost complete lack of foreign books. The recent American books seem to be best represented. The library is of course supplemented by incomplete private reprint files of the investigators, altho’ few of the workers can afford to buy any books at all. All feel that the greatest lack at the Institute is a complete biological library especially of works in German and English and all efforts are being made to remedy this lack first of all. In comparison with the general economic level in Russia, one must say that the Institute is well supported and that it has made a remarkable showing in biological research both in quantity and quality. The chief characteristics of the work of this institute as of other scientific institutions that I saw are first modernity and novelty of the guiding ideas. The problems frequently and the mode of attack nearly always are quite different from those in other countries and where they have followed an influence from abroad (as in the Drosophila work) they have given it a direction and a method that is peculiarly local or Russian. Apart from this peculiarity, they are nearest in spirit and sympathy [2|3] to the American type of experimental biology and this is especially true in genetics. They recognize this themselves and are more anxious for American sympathy and recognition than for any other except perhaps German. Practically all of the investigators speak and write some other language than Russian. German ranks first, English second, and French third, although French is being abandoned and the younger workers are learning English rather than German. The general impression of the Institute is a very favorable one. It is well managed. Professor Lebedeéf now gives all his time to the details of administration and management and is a very able and energetic man. Professor Koltzoff is, as judged by his work, his personality and the esteem with which he his held in Germany and Russia, a sound scientist and a sympathetic and successful director. He is probably the leading general biologist of Russia. The workers are enthusiastic and loyal. When one considers the amount and quality of the work which has continued without interruption through the famine years and the difficult conditions of life that now prevail in Moscow, one is continually astonished. I visited at the homes of three scientists. Serebrovsky with a wife and three children has one room and lives about as an American day laborer. Tschetverikoff with his wife, mother, brother and sister-in-law, shares with a workman’s family of six, a five room apartment. Koltzoff has three rooms at the Institute for his family. All are poor and have no money for the amenities of life but on the whole seem to have adapted themselves to the new order and to be working in harmony with it. They seem to be as happy, even though not nearly as comfortable as the American scientist of the same grade. When I expressed astonishment over what had been accomplished Tschetverikoff answered that in the famine years they had to have something to keep their minds off their empty stomachs and general misery. But apart from this it seemed to me time and again that scientific, artistic and cultural life in general in Russia is to be regarded as a necessity and in no sense as a luxury. The theater and literature and the arts and sciences continued when the whole economic machinery had stopped and apparently represented things more important than food. This I think was the chief and final impression of my visit to Moscow. Another reason for the scientific activity in Russia is the attitude of the Government which attaches first importance to education and especially to research. Many of the confiscated houses and estates have been turned over to educational and scientific purposes. To be sure little actual money can be given for equipment for Russia is probably the poorest country in the world just now, but proportionately considerable money must be given if only to support the many persons engaged in research. Finally, the foundations for a scientific and cultural tradition were laid before the present regime took power and to this the revolution has given a certain degree of freedom which, if economic support increases, should result in a scientific renaissance similar to that of the last few decades in America.

Apart from the Institute of Experimental Biology, I visited the Genetical Station at Anikowo, about forty kilometers from Moscow. This consists of a country house and estate together with a new poultry and sheep plant built in the last few years. It has a permanent staff of about fifteen workers but in the summer many of the workers from Koltzoff’s Institute work there. It is under the same direction as the Institute of Experimental Biology. The most important work here [3|4] is that of Serebrovsky with fowls, of which I have already written. In this he has had a number of collaborators although now he has but one assistant, Petroff, who carries on the work under Serebrovsky’s direction. Next in importance is the work with sheep Mr. and Mrs. Wassin who have a large collection of sheep from all parts of Russia and are studying experimentally the inheritance of color and pattern, horns, earlessness and other morphological characters. The more expensive and laborious work on inheritance of wool characters is first beginning. They have many more varieties of sheep in all respects than most of us in America have ever seen. The native sheep populations are enormously variable and provide excellent material for genetic experiments. Wassin is an intelligent and well trained investigator and is obtaining much new data of importance in general genetics.

In cattle Miss Ivanowna has studied the genetics of the native cattle populations which like the sheep are extremely variable. She has studied and published on the inheritance of new characters such as polymasty and many new color and pattern types and is now working on milk production with several community and partially experimental herds. Other investigators are working with bees, guinea pigs and Drosophila. The station is little more than a house for living quarters and work rooms. There is practically no equipment and no library. The out of door arrangements for the animals, especially fowls and sheep are however quite good. Here again much good work is being done under extremely primitive conditions and with an expenditure of much time, labor and ingenuity but no money.

The other places of chief interest for me in Moscow were the two Universities, the Laboratory of Experimental Zoology of the Zoopark, the dairy and poultry farm of the G.P.U. (formerly the Tcheka) and the Experiment Station of the Board of Animal Husbandry near Moscow. The First (old) University, while in bad physical condition is accommodating 10,000 students with large classes in biology. The second (new) University is in better condition although its equipment is entirely inadequate for the large scientific and especially premedical courses. In the First University the most important man seemed to me to be Prof. Gurwitsch of the Histology Department. He was by all odds the most interesting man I met in Moscow and his work is certainly the most original and possibly the most fundamental of any that I saw. He has been an embryologist and histologist of established reputation and has written two books (in German) that are standards in these fields. For some 12 or 15 years he has been studying cell division. His chief discovery is that cells undergoing rapid division emit energy which is capable of stimulating mitosis in other cells situated at a distance. Thus if the growing tip of an onion root is placed near the older part of another onion root tip – about 5-10 mm. away – an area of intense mitosis is found in the older root opposite the point at which the growing point of the other root has been placed. Gurwitsch calls this effect “induction” and assumes that energy passes from the area of mitotic activity and stimulates similar activity in the “induced” root. The same effect has been observed in other plant and animal tissues. The energy he first called “mitogenetische Strahlen” but he now has good evidence that this energy is identical with ultraviolet energy and is hence a form of radiation. He has done an enormous amount of work together with his wife, daughter and students, especially [4|5] on the physical nature of this mitogenetic energy and is now publishing regularly in German. Although received with skepticism for several years, his ideas are now gaining ground, at least in Germany, and his work is now being repeated in other labs. From an examination of his protocols, apparatus and preparations, I am convinced of his sincerity and importance of his work, although I think the fundamental fact of induction should be checked rigorously. As a personality, Gurwitsch is preeminently the honest, sincere, and humble scientist, – I think a really great man. He has absolutely no money or equipment except his microscope, microtome and the induction apparatus which he has made himself from old camera and microscope parts. His living conditions are worse than average, one small dark room for his family. His chief needs however are opportunities for contact with his fellow workers in other countries, an opportunity for his students to get training in other laboratories than his own, and access to foreign literature. I formed the resolution after talking with him to try to persuade some university or association to invite him to America to lecture and demonstrate his new material. He has been invited once to Germany to lecture but only for a short time. Several people from this institute [Dunn is writing from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology at Berlin-Dahlem] who heard him were greatly impressed, but as a scientific radical he has not found general acceptance or appreciation. In my opinion he is the outstanding scientific figure of Moscow and I quote his case in detail to support my contention that it would be of the greatest value to western science to establish close relationships and in particular an exchange of workers with Russia.

A figure of quite a different type but who also represents an important development in biology in Moscow is Zawadovsky, who is director of the Laboratory of Exp. Biol. of the Zoological Park. This laboratory is a large building with good facilities for animal experiments, situated in the Zoological Park. It accommodates about ten investigators and twenty five advanced students in Physiology and experimental morphology from the 2nd University where Zawadovsky holds a professorship. The chief problems are in sex determination and differentiation in mammals and birds, general endocrinology, nutrition, morphogenesis, and parasitology. Here also the guiding principles are a combination of genetic and developmental ideas, as illustrated in the work of Zawadovsky on the mechanism of sex dimorphism and the relation of ductless glands to sex and plumage characters in birds, and in the work of Iljin, an assistant, on the interaction of genetic factors, food, temperature, etc., in determining coat patterns in rabbits and guinea pigs. Zawadovsky is more remarkable for his great energy, organizing ability and experimental ingenuity than for the originality and depth of his ideas. He has discovered many extremely interesting problems and has many people actively at work on material, especially in birds, which seemed quite new to me. This institute is better equipped than any of the university labs although it has the same defects, i.e. absence of good library and technical facilities. It appears to be well supported in respect of space and animals by the Zoological Park of which it forms an integral part.

I was unable to visit the experiment station for the central (Moscow) district which is some 50 kilometers from the city but had [5|6] a conversation in Moscow with Dr. Garkawy, director of the animal breeding section, concerning the work of his section. The chief work is in dairy cattle breeding and a well planned long time experiment is in progress which has as its object the discovery of a system of progeny testing for bulls which can be used under Russian conditions. I had a very good impression of Dr. Garkawy who is fundamentally a biometrician and is well informed in his subject. The experiment station, which has several large estates, includes also research departments in all of the important agricultural branches and its organization and work seems to be modern and soundly based.

I spent an afternoon at the estate of the G.P.U. (Intelligence Service) near Moscow, where a modern poultry and dairy plant for practical educational purposes has recently been built. The cattle work seemed especially good, since they are developing the small, almost dwarf Central Russian cow as a very economical milk producer. The poultry plant, while large, has not yet solved the environmental problems which under Russian weather conditions are very difficult. The farm is stocked with pure bred fowls imported chiefly from Denmark and is to serve as a distribution, breeding and demonstration center. The direction seemed to me to be capable and progressive, and to have laid careful plans for a sound if slow development. Professor Serebrovsky is consultant in the poultry department and other specialists are in the dairy department.

From conversations here and there with men in the Commissariat of Agriculture I had the impression of considerable activity in agricultural organization. The most pressing problems are at present not new research but the modernization of methods and the application of practices discovered in other countries. The greatest activity is in the mechanization of agriculture and farm machinery is being made and imported on a large scale. Much depends on the improvement of communication for the roads are in general bad. Improvement of local races of animals is just beginning, but crop practices are already well advanced. In spite of immediate pressing problems, there is an evident realization of the need of fundamental research. It is significant that Vaviloff’s big plant breeding institute at Leningrad was built during the famine years when the immediate business of getting food was most pressing. New stations are being organized throughout the Union and in all research is included on a par with practical work.

In general, as my letters show, my impressions were very favorable. They must be discounted a little for the element of surprise influenced my reaction. I had not expected to find such scientific activity in a country which has gone through an economic revolution and which has no economic surplus at present, and I confess I shared a little the naïve conception of Russia as a benighted land. This has some truth, for Russia is backward in material development as compared with the western nations, but as applied to cultural development it is a misconception. I was nevertheless so pleased to find such life where I had not expected to find it, that perhaps I overestimate its amount and importance. Secondly I saw only the capital city of a huge nation and proportionally the amount of scientific work is probably small. Lastly I suspect that the biological sciences may not be a fair sample since they are probably more highly developed [6|7] just now than some others. Aside from native interest and ability for biological work, there may be another good economic reason for the activity. A Drosophila lab, for example, can do good work without any equipment except a few bottles, an incubator, and some binoculars and genetics in general is in the same situation. And Russia above all is a poor country where such things may determine the direction of scientific activity.

More important than such considerations however is the fact that the people and the atmosphere of good scientific work, as well as a proportionately high degree of public support, are present together in Moscow. It seems to me already the chief European center of genetic research, using genetics in the narrow or American sense, and should soon approach some of the German centers in general biology.

The people that I met are particularly anxious for closer contact with other countries in order to overcome the isolation under which they have labored since 1914. First in order they place library facilities which have improved during the last few years but are still very incomplete. Secondly is the necessity for younger scientists to study in foreign countries so that they can learn other languages and publish in English and German as well as Russian, and so that they can study problems at present outside the range of Russian facilities. I think they entertain no hopes of outside aid for Russian scientific institutions in the way of equipment, etc., and are in general hesitant in answering questions about what they need most, except in respect of books, etc.

It seemed to me that in Moscow more than in any other place I have visited the investment of a little sympathy and interest and perhaps a little money for fellowships or libraries would yield disproportionately high returns. […]

Sincerely, / L. C. Dunn

Quotes to insert

“I have a great hankering to see what’s going on….”4

“I have been impressed with the magnitude of important and significant research that is being done in Russia under conditions that would be disheartening if not prohibitive to less determined people. This impression has been materially strengthened by your report.”5


Dunn in Germany 1928, in Dunn Papers, folder: “Photographs #1”. Courtesy of American Philosophical Society Library.