Background note Milislav Demerec
Born in Yugoslavia in 1895, the geneticist Milislav Demerec graduated from the College of Agriculture at Krizevci in 1916, remaining there are as an adjunct at the Experiment Station until 1919. With the war ended, however, Demerec emigrated to the United States and accepted a position in the Department of Plant Breeding at Cornell University. For four years, he worked under R. A. Emerson, studying the genetic basis of such phenotypic traits in maize as variegation and viriscence of seedlings manifesting somatic mosaicism. In 1923, Demerece left Cornell for Cold Spring Harbor, where his most productive years of research followed. Beginning as a member of the staff of the Dept. of Genetics of the Carnegie Institution, he was eventually promoted to Director of the Long Island Biological Association Laboratory in 1941, and of Carnegie's Department of Genetics in 1943. A superlative administrator, under Demerec's watch, the Biological Association and Department of Genetics were effectively combined, and Demerec remained in charge of both until his retirement in 1960. His tenure saw the establishment of the important summer meetings at Cold Spring Harbor, out of which
grew the courses in bacteriophage and bacterial genetics. From 1941 to 1960, he organized the equally important Symposium in Quantitative Biology and the summer training courses for geneticists. Part of Demerec's legacy is founded as well in his editorial work on the publications stemming from the Symposia, as well as the Drosophila Guide, The Biology of Drosophila, Advances in Genetics, and the Drosophila Information Service. Demerec was active as well in organizing the International Congresses of Genetics from the 7th Congress in Edinburgh, 1938, through the 11th Congress, 1960. As a researcher at Cold Spring Harbor, Demerec shifted away from plant genetics to attempts to assess factors regulating mutation rates in Drosophila virilis and to assessing mutation rates at different ontogenetic stages. With H. J. Muller in 1918, he had been involved in some of the earliest efforts to determine whether genetic mutations could be artificially induced, and at Cold Spring during the 1930s, he ramped up his program in radiobiology to a large scale, working on x-ray induced mutations in Drosophila melanogaster. During the 1940s, he explored the role of ultraviolet rays and neutrons in mutation, working in conjunction with M. A. Tuve's laboratory in the Dept. of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution, and he became increasingly interested in variation in spontaneous mutation rates in D. melanogaster. Demerec helped to establish the existence of mutator genes, and his interests in unstable genes led to an exploration of position effects influencing mutation.
Demerec in his Cold Spring Harbor laboratory, 1928
The exigencies of the Second World War led Demerec to a third phase in his research , working on the bacteria Escherichia coli and later Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella typhimurium. Initially, Demerec performed research using penicillin, aureomycin, and streptomycin to examine bacterial mutation and the genetic basis of antibiotic. He carried these interest into the 1950s, branching out into the mutagenic effects of a variety of salts and organic chemicals, with his final projects, conducted with Philip Hartman, involving study of the fine structure and recombination of genes in Salmonella. Upon reaching the standard age of retirement, Demerec was replaced as Director at Cold Spring by Arthur Chovnick, who offered Demerec room for research only if he agreed to work with
Chovnick's group. As a result, Demerec declined, becoming a senior staff member at Brookhaven National Labortory for five years, 1960-1965, where continued to work on problems in mutation and linkage in Salmonella. Having reached the age of mandatory retirement at Brookhaven, Demerec accepted a position as research professor at C. W. Post College of Long Island University, but died of a heart attack before he assumed the post. Scope and content
The Demerec Papers provide almost complete documentation of the professional life of the geneticist Milislav Demerec. The collection is very sparse for the period of Demerec's career prior to his emigration to America, however later, and especially after the Second World War, he took an active interest in the state of scientific institutions in Yugoslavia. His correspondence with C.B. Hutchinson, Mirko Koric, Peo Koller, Barna, Gyorffy, and the American Association for Reconstruction in Yugoslavia offer insight into the state of post-war genetics in Demerec's home country, and particularly into the impact of Lysenko in Eastern Europe. The course of Demerec's early years in the United States, spent at Cornell, are documented in letters with R.A. Emerson and Allen C. Fraser, but the bulk of the correspondence dates from after his remove to Cold Spring in 1923. Demerec's early study of the genetic effects of x-ray in Drosophila is Theodore S. Painter, Margaret Hoover, B.P. Kaufmann, and Eileen Sutton, and in folders labeled Gene Study Organization. Some of his extensive correspondence with Calvin B. Bridges, and therefore with Thomas Hunt Morgan's group at Cal Tech, includes discussions of Bridges' work in mapping of the giant salivary chromosomes of D. melanogaster, though most pertains to their joint concern in the Drosophila Information Service that they cofounded. The occasional competitive tensions between the laboratories at Cal Tech and Cold Spring can be gleaned from Demerec's correspondence with Walter Gilbert, but particularly in his exchanges with Theodosius Dobzhansky and L. C. Dunn. Series I.
Restrictions None. Provenance Gift of Mary Demerec, 1966 (accession numbers 1969-1429ms, 1430ms) Preferred citation Cite as: Milislav Demerec Papers, American Philosophical Society. Additional information Related material Several collections at the APS include material relating to the biological laboratories at Cold Spring Harbor, including the papers of Charles B. Davenport and Albert Blakeslee, and the Records of the Eugenics Record Office. Demerec appears as a correspondent in the papers of Max Bergmann, Ernst Caspari, Charles B. Davenport, L.C. Dunn, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Hubert Dana Goodale, Michael Lerner, Warren Lewis, Robert Cushman Murphy, James V. Neel, Thomas Rivers, Peyton Rous, and Jack Schultz. References Glass, Bentley, "Milislav Demerec," Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 47 (1971), 1-21.
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