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Liane B. Russell remembered for her research, advocacy

Mammalian genetics pioneer Liane B. Russell died Saturday, July 20. She was 95. Lee, as she was known to friends and colleagues, arrived in Oak Ridge in 1947 with her husband, William L. Russell, to study radiation-induced health effects using mice, which are genetically similar to humans.

Among Russell's important discoveries at Oak Ridge National Laboratory were the effects of radiation on developing embryos, which led to health precaution guidelines for women of childbearing age that are still observed today, and in determining through mutations in female mice the Y chromosome's role as the male-determining chromosome in mice. Bill and Lee Russell also studied chemically induced mutations and developed a variety of mutations to serve as models for human genetic disorders.

Lee Russell's incredible life journey has left us with a legacy of discovery that expanded, through genetics research, our understanding of our world, our lives and our health. The global scientific community will honor her many contributions to science. Our Oak Ridge community will remember her, as well, for her support for early career researchers and her work on behalf of our East Tennessee environment,” said ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia.

Russell's Austrian family fled the Nazis in the late 1930s, eventually arriving in the United States. The daughter of a chemist, she became interested in chemistry and biology as a college student. She met Bill Russell while participating in a research assistantship at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.

The Russells chose the Clinton Laboratories -- ORNL's Manhattan Project name -- as a destination largely because, in contrast to most universities, Lee would be allowed to work alongside Bill. Over the next six decades, the Russells’ volume of work with mutant mouse strains led to the development of an extensive mouse colony known as the Mouse House and a number of discoveries related to their mammalian genetics research.

Russell was an internationally recognized researcher throughout her career. She was the scientific advisor for the U.S. delegation to the first Atoms for Peace Conference in 1955, received the Roentgen Medal in 1973 and became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1986.

In 1994 she received DOE's Enrico Fermi Award, the agency's highest scientific award. The citation honored her for "her outstanding contributions to genetics and radiation biology including her discovery of the chromosomal basis for sex determination in mammals and her contributions to our knowledge of the effects of radiation on the developing embryo and fetus.” 

The Russells' Mouse House at the Y-12 National Security Complex, which housed as many as 200,000 mice, was one of ORNL's most famous institutions and made lasting contributions to genetics research. For example, in 2017 winners of the prestigious Crafoord Prize from the Swedish Royal Academy noted the importance of a mutation known as "scurfy," identified by the Russells decades earlier, to their research in autoimmune disease.

Russell experienced many of the career difficulties common to women in science and became an advocate for them. ORNL established the Liane B. Russell Distinguished Early Career Fellowship in 2013 to attract diverse and promising early-career scientists whose career goals align with DOE missions. Russell personally greeted the first classes of fellows in the program.

The Russells were known for their environmental advocacy. Lee and Bill, who died in 2003, fell in love with the East Tennessee region and were instrumental in founding Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, establishing the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and obtaining National Wild and Scenic River designation for the Obed River.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit