By: Dr. Jerry Bergman
I always welcome feedback from readers, which often can be very helpful. I recently received a letter from Dr. Betts’ grandson, Ben Locke.
He correctly noted that I need to provide greater context to my article on Betts to better understand the first half of the 20th century when Dr. Betts lived.
The scientific community’s involvement in, and the technology used to protect public health were, compared to today, grossly lacking.
Mr. Locke gave as an example the scandals of the meat-packing industries which were exposed by Upton Sinclair in his book The Jungle, a mere five years after Dr. Betts published “Aluminum Poisoning.”
Sinclair’s vivid description of diseased, rotten, and contaminated meat shocked the public and led to the modern federal food safety laws.
In another example, the American government undertook a project involving syphilitic Black males at Tuskegee, Alabama that lasted for forty years.
Treatment was available, but not administered because the researchers wanted to determine if the progression of syphilis was different in Blacks as compared to Whites.
They found the obvious, that there was no difference in the way the disease progressed based on one’s melanin content.
Ben Locke also noted that, to determine shoe fit, the unregulated use of X-Ray fluoroscopes by shoe stores was common.
Physicians also used X-rays to shrink enlarged thyroid glands in babies. Now we know radiation exposure to the thyroid at a young age is a long-term risk factor for the development of differentiated thyroid cancer.
In some respects, Dr. Betts was a pioneer, one of the first medical practitioners asking serious questions about toxicity.
My favorite example is the discovery that X-rays produce mutations which then, and now, are the major means evolution relies on to produce genetic variety.
For evolution to work, genetic variety is critical. No genetic variety, no evolution. Darwin correctly recognized that natural selection was valid (due to its being a tautology, a self-evident truth): the more fit are more likely to survive and have offspring. However, he never could come up with a theory explaining the origin of new genetic variations.
In 1903, Dutch geneticist Hugo de Vries discovered mutations which caused sporadic, sudden changes in living organisms.
Then, in the 1920’s, Dr. Hermann J. Muller discovered that X-rays could increase the mutation rate by as much as 100 times.
Muller reasoned that by creating mutations using X-rays, he could drastically speed up evolution. A March 1928 Scientific American article announced his discovery to the world: “New Discovery Speeds Up Evolution.”
For his discovery, Muller was awarded the most prestigious award in science, the Nobel Prize. In his 1946 Nobel lecture, Muller wrote that “this accumulation of many rare, mainly tiny changes is the chief means of artificial animal and plant improvement, and is …[how]natural evolution has occurred guided by natural selection. Thus the Darwinian theory becomes implemented.”
Now we know that the vast majority of mutations are harmful. My cancer research experience taught me how and why mutations are a major cause of disease, including cancer, cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, sickle-cell disease, Down syndrome, and over 7,000 other diseases.
In short, we need to have more respect for the early pioneers of our society in spite of some of what we now recognize as foolish mistakes.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,800 publications in 12 languages and 60 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries.