Muller’s nobel prize research and peer review

Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine 13 (1):1-6 (2018)
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This paper assesses possible reasons why Hermann J. Muller avoided peer-review of data that became the basis of his Nobel Prize award for producing gene mutations in male Drosophila by X-rays. Extensive correspondence between Muller and close associates and other materials were obtained from preserved papers to compliment extensive publications by and about Muller in the open literature. These were evaluated for potential historical insights that clarify why he avoided peer-review of his Nobel Prize findings. This paper clarifies the basis of Muller’s (Muller HJ, Sci 66 84-87, 1927c) belief that he produced X-ray induced “gene” mutations in Drosophila. It then shows his belief was contemporaneously challenged by his longtime friend/confidant and Drosophila geneticist, Edgar Altenburg. Altenburg insisted that Muller may have simply poked large holes in chromosomes with massive doses of X-rays, and needed to provide proof of gene “point” mutations. Given the daunting and uncertain task to experimentally address this criticism, especially within the context of trying to become first to produce gene mutations, it is proposed that Muller purposely avoided peer-review while rushing to publish his paper in Science to claim discovery primacy without showing any data. The present paper also explores ethical issues surrounding these actions, including those of the editor of Science, James McKeen Catell and Altenburg, and their subsequent impact on the scientific and regulatory communities. This historical analysis suggests that Muller deliberately avoided peer-review on his most significant findings because he was extremely troubled by the insightful and serious criticism of Altenburg, which suggested he had not produced gene mutations as he claimed. Nonetheless, Muller manipulated this situation (i.e., publishing a discussion within Science with no data, publishing a poorly written non-peer reviewed conference proceedings with no methods and materials, and no references) due to both the widespread euphoria over his claim of gene mutation and confidence that Altenburg would not publically challenge him. This situation permitted Muller to achieve his goal to be the first to produce gene mutations while buying him time to later try to experimentally address Altenburg’s criticisms, and a possible way to avoid discovery of his questionable actions.



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