Standing In Two Shadows

April 12, 2020 by anon


It’s traditional that incredible female scientists are hidden by the shadows cast by male colleagues in the limelight. Edwin Hubble discovered that the Universe was expanding, but the work of one Henrietta Leavitt was critical to that discovery. Leavitt had worked out that astronomical distances could be calculated based on the pulsing brightness of certain stars. It changed our view of the Universe, but by the time anybody thought to nominate her for a Nobel Prize, Leavitt had already died of cancer in 1921. The same thing would happen to Rosalind Franklin thirty-seven years later. A gifted chemist, Franklin produced crucial data that allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to figure out the structure of DNA. Only they and Franklin’s supervisor, Maurice Wilkins, would go on to win the Nobel Prize – Franklin died of ovarian cancer four years before. Standing behind Neil Armstrong’s one small step for man, among others, were teams of African-American women at NASA. These women were ‘computers’, just as Henrietta Leavitt had been, and carried out by hand the complicated mathematics that would ultimately win the Space Race for the USA.

All of these women were significant contributors to advances that brought fame and recognition to their male colleagues, recognition that bypassed them in their time. The stories of those advances however do contain within them the stories of these overlooked women, even if one has to look to find them. Where then, does the work of a female scientist go when she stood on her own and made independent discoveries? When she published sixteen single-author papers but was never given an official position until she was seventy-six? When her husband won the Nobel Prize but was uncomfortable with her presence in his lab?

Lilian Vaughan Sampson was an established zoologist by the time she married her far more famous husband, Thomas Morgan. They’d met in Bryn Mawr University where he had supervised her Master’s thesis. Following a break of several years to have and raise four children, Lilian Morgan returned to research in Columbia University, where her husband had moved and set up a fruit-fly lab.

Lilian Sampson in 1897, photographed at Woods Hole, Massachusetts

Morgan’s famous ‘Fly Room’ was a happening place then. Morgan and a group of brilliant grad students were figuring out the secrets of heredity through experiments with fruit-flies – the same little yellow-brown bugs that appear mysteriously when we bring bananas into our homes. In 1916 one of those students  – Calvin Bridges – published a landmark paper that showed how sex was determined in the fruit-fly. Animal DNA is wrapped up in small parcels called chromosomes, and in fruit-flies, like mammals, there are two sex chromosomes: X and Y. Females have two X chromosomes (XX);  males, one X and one Y (XY). In fruit-flies however, sex is not decided by whether a fly has XX or XY, but by the number of X chromosomes the fly has*. The Y is only involved in making sperm cells, so if a fly has a single X, it would be male, but sterile.

On the 21st of February 1921, Lilian Morgan had an anaesthetized fly from one of her cultures under the microscope. She had been crossing different strains of flies and examining them for novel features that she could track. As she was examining it, the fly woke up from the anaesthesia and fell to the floor – a mishap any fly researcher will wince at in recognition. As Lilian searched for it, she remembered that fruit flies like to go towards light; perhaps the fly was on the window. That was where she found it and she quickly anaesthetized it again so she could take a look at it. The fly was female, and she was an odd creature: her front portion looked like her mother, with small eyes and a grey body; her back portion looked like her father, with a yellow body. She was a mosaic: all of these traits – her eye shape and body colours – were known to be due to mutations on the X chromosomes, and she had different mutations in her front and back end.

Lilian mated the funny-looking fly with a healthy black male and took a look at the offspring. They were bizarre: all the daughters were yellow and healthy but all the sons were grey and sterile. Further, when the mosaic’s yellow daughters were mated with normal males, all the daughters looked like their mother and all the sons like their father, and both sons and daughters were fertile. In a normal fly mating, the mother’s two X chromosomes get separated into many different eggs and the father’s X and Y are separated into many different sperm. As eggs and sperm unite in different combinations, so too will the progeny show different combinations of their parents’ characteristics in different ratios. The only thing that could explain how the sons and daughters were all alike… was that the X chromosomes didn’t separate. Lilian immediately deduced that the two X-chromosomes had to be attached so they were only inherited as a single unit.

It was a beautiful piece of deduction and an incredible discovery. The attached-X is a genetic tool that allowed mutations on the X-chromosome to be maintained easily in a stock of flies, as the progeny of an attached-X fly always looks like its same-sex parent. This made innumerable future lines of research possible, including the study of how parental traits are recombined in  offspring, and neatly confirmed Bridges’s theories of sex-determination to boot.

Lilian’s list of accomplishments doesn’t end there. She later found another variation on the X-chromosome called the ‘ring’ chromosome, where the ends of the X-chromosome fuse to form a ring. Most important of all perhaps, even before the attached-X, she and Thomas together discovered the first ever fruit-fly mutation in the lab, which turned the eyes white instead of the normal red. There are few fly labs today that do not have their own stock of white flies. Further, because it was located on the X chromosome, it was inherited differently by sons and daughters – thus was the phenomenon of sex-linked inheritance first discovered by husband and wife. Only husband authored the resulting paper.  

Thomas Morgan is rightly recognised as a trailblazing geneticist – he established that genes were on chromosomes and are the basis of heredity. It’s thanks to him that the fruit-fly is the darling of modern genetics research. The text-books go on and on and about the work his lab did and Lilian is nearly always forgotten. As far as she is concerned, Thomas in the limelight casts not one but two shadows: one as head of the lab, the other as her husband. The world remembers only one Morgan in fly genetics. The Morgans’s daughter Isabel remembers that though her father regarded her mother as an independent investigator, not an assistant, she still wasn’t part of the inner circle. Thomas was never really happy with his wife being in the lab and Lilian was rather isolated. She just worked quietly by herself with her own fly stocks, channeling her considerable energy into her work. Another lab member, Phoebe Reed Sturtevant**, recalled years later that Lilian didn’t talk much, but she never started a sentence without knowing what she wanted to say. Her isolation was partly due to age: she’d left research for years to take care of the children while her husband carried on his work. One honestly wonders if Thomas would have won his Nobel Prize if he had done his share of the cooking, cleaning and putting the children to bed – and who knows what Lilian might have accomplished then?

Certainly she kept herself busy even in the home. During family summer vacations in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Lilian ran a large household, inviting over relatives and assorted graduate students. She indulged her love for children and her love for teaching them science, filling the Woods Hole house with science projects. Finally, in 1913, she helped found the Children’s Science Center in Woods Hole, still going strong today. If she at all resented being excluded to the home from the front-lines of research she doesn’t seem to have shown it; Lilian’s strictness was always softened by her warmth, love and generosity.

Hardly anybody may know her name, but both inside and outside the lab, Lilian Vaughan Morgan left a quiet, powerful legacy behind. There’s a story to be told there; I even see a poignant screenplay begging to be written. There is a hunger to know of and celebrate these women in the shadows. Margot Lee Shetterley’s 2016 book Hidden Figures about NASA’s female computers was a best-seller, and the movie it became netted three Oscar nominations. There’s already a movie about the Fly Room at Columbia University, though it’s about Calvin Bridges, not even Thomas Morgan.  

When I watched The Fly Room, I had my ears pricked for some mention of Lilian. I’d even hoped for a glimpse of a stately, older woman working in a separate room (a cameo by Meryl Streep or Glenn Close) as Bridges explained in an offhand way to his daughter, ‘That’s Mrs. Morgan, the boss’s wife. Ahem, ah – uh – good morning, Mrs. M.’ No such luck.

Biographers and screenwriters of the world: here you go. Tell the world her story. Tell Lilian Vaughan Morgan’s story. I think it’s time.

Further reading: Lilian Vaughan Morgan (1870-1952): Her Life and Work

Image in the public domain


*Technically it’s the ratio of the number of X chromosomes to the number of autosomes, i.e., those chromosomes that are not sex chromosomes. A ratio of 1 produces a normal female and a ratio of 0.5 produces a normal male

**Her last name is no coincidence: her husband was Thomas’s student Alfred “Sturts” Sturtevant.


Guest post written by Shambhavi Chidambaram.

Shambhavi (AKA Sam) is a biologist studying animal behaviour and neuroscience at the Humboldt University, Berlin. When she’s not chasing bats or running trails, she’s usually busy hunting for a perfectly-tailored humorous metaphor. Science writing for her is an art; she believes her work is done when anybody who reads her pieces has not only learned something fascinating but feels smarter in the process. While Sam mostly writes about biology and Open Science, she’s always keen for new ideas. You can follow her on Twitter at the handle @Quidestvita.

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