Lilian Vaughan and Thomas Hunt Morgan
When Lilian Vaughan Morgan died in 1952, she had 18 scientific publications to her credit, spanning research before the birth of her first child (in 1906) and for years after her children were grown. Morgan made significant contributions to the nascent field of genetics, and early in her career she published on development and regeneration.
Yet Morgan had never held a faculty position, attended a scientific meeting, or joined a professional society. In fact, she never held any professional position as a scientist until 1946, when California Institute of Technology appointed her as research associate. This overdue recognition came one year after the death of her husband, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a pioneering geneticist and recipient of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Lilian Morgan’s productivity as a researcher, despite her lack of appointment, was made possible through an arrangement with her husband, who ran a prolific lab at Columbia University and later at CalTech. Early in her career, Lilian also found a scientific home as an independent investigator at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL).
A Woods Hole Marriage
Lilian Vaughan Sampson first met T.H. Morgan at the MBL in 1891, the summer after she graduated from Bryn Mawr College for women, where she studied biology. That same year, Morgan received his Ph.D. in Zoology at Johns Hopkins University (he had collected sea spiders at MBL for his doctoral research) and accepted a faculty position at Bryn Mawr. In the fall, Sampson went to Zurich to study comparative anatomy. When she came back, she began working on a master’s degree with Morgan.
According to the mores of the time, female faculty at women’s colleges had to be single (married women were expected to be dedicated to family) and male faculty were married. Bryn Mawr was an exception and hired single men such as Morgan and pioneering cell biologist Edmund Beecher Wilson (along with physiologist Jacques Loeb, who was married) – all active scientists at the MBL as well. At Bryn Mawr, Morgan trained a large group of students, including Sampson, Nettie Stevens, and others, in original research approaches and published their results in the Bryn Mawr College Monographs.
After receiving her master’s, Sampson returned to the MBL as an independent investigator for many summers through the 1890s, publishing embryological studies in a mollusk and in frogs. Morgan was active at the MBL in both research and leadership, and in 1897 he was named an MBL Trustee, a position he held for the rest of his life.
Morgan spent 1894-95 at the Naples Zoological Station, where he came into contact with the European school of experimental embryology that profoundly influenced research at the MBL. Morgan and Sampson also both studied regeneration in a variety of organisms at the MBL, with Morgan publishing a book, Regeneration, in 1901.
In 1904, Morgan and Sampson were married. Their first child soon followed, and then three more. Lilian set aside her research for the next 15 years, taking full responsibility for raising the children and running the household.
Research and Family
The year of his marriage, T.H. Morgan was appointed a professor at Columbia University. For the next 25 years the family spent winters in New York and summers in Woods Hole, where they had a large and busy household at 56 Buzzards Bay Avenue. There, they enjoyed the company of many scientific colleagues and friends, including the E.B. Wilsons, who lived across the street, and the Edwin G. Conklins.
Morgan pursued many lines of investigation at the MBL, all related to his central interests in sex determination, development and heredity. In about 1908 he began breeding fruit flies (Drosophila) at Columbia University, using them to experimentally probe how Darwin’s theory of natural selection might work.
In 1910 Morgan discovered a trait inherited only by males in his fly stocks. This led him to analyze the role of the chromosomes in heredity, research that absorbed his lab for the next two decades and in 1933 brought Morgan the Nobel Prize.
Morgan brought members of his Columbia “fly lab” to the MBL every summer starting about 1913, where they carried out their Drosophila research in the Crane building. In Woods Hole, even while the fly genetics research was in full swing, Morgan delved deeply into his earlier interests: embryology and regeneration using marine organisms.
In 1913 Lilian Morgan co-founded the Summer School Club in Woods Hole, which evolved into the Children’s School of Science, still operating today. As the school’s first science committee chairperson, Lilian emphasized outdoor work, collecting organisms and experiments.
1920s and Beyond
When Lilian returned to research, she transitioned into experimental genetics, the field in which Thomas and his lab were contributing pioneering, foundational work. While she lacked an appointment at Columbia, Thomas gave her space in his lab to work independently. She worked alone, with her own Drosophila stocks; “she was never part of the ‘inner circle’ which consisted of T.H. Morgan and his graduate students, especially Alfred Sturtevant, Calvin Bridges and Hermann Muller,” writes biographer Katherine Keenen.
Yet Lilian made significant contributions. In the early 20s, she discovered a fly with two attached X chromosomes; her analysis of it provided more evidence for the chromosome theory of inheritance and also Bridges’ theory of sex determination. The attached-X also became recognized as a genetic tool that allows mutations on the X-chromosome to be easily maintained in a stock of flies.
In 1928 the Morgan family moved to Pasadena, Calif., where Morgan became head of the biology division at California Institute of Technology. There, Lilian was even more productive, publishing nine single-author papers on Drosophila. The Morgans continued to spend many summers in Woods Hole, driving across country to get there. Thomas’s genetics work continued but his interests increasingly returned to experimental embryology.
While the Morgans’ partnership in life was enduring and fruitful, in science they were on unequal ground consistent with the barriers 20th-century women faced to gaining professional stature. At the end of Thomas’s life, after he and Lilian had separately published more than 100 papers, they produced their first co-authored study: on the maintenance of a Drosophila stock center.
—By Diana Kenney
Keenan, Katherine (1983) “Lilian Vaughan Morgan (1870-1952): Her Life and Work.” American Zoologist, DOI: 10.1093/icb/23.4.867. (This article includes a list of Lilian Vaughan Morgan’s publications.)
Kenney, Diana and Borisy, Gary (2002) “Thomas Hunt Morgan at the Marine Biological Laboratory: Naturalist and Experimentalist.” Genetics, DOI: 10.1534/genetics.109.101659.
Maienschein, Jane. One Hundred Years Exploring Life 1888-1988: The Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. Boston: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 1989. Digitized at: https://hdl.handle.net/1912/21938
Morgan Mountain, Isabel (1983) “An Introduction to Thomas Hunt Morgan and Lilian Vaughan Morgan.” American Zoologist, DOI: 10.1093/icb/23.4.825.
Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.