Friday, September 15, 2017

Birth Dates of Notable Kentuckians: September 15, 1866 – Thomas Hunt Morgan

Photograph by John M. Rawls (from
From The Kentucky Encyclopedia –
Thomas Hunt Morgan, born on September 25, 1866, in Lexington, Kentucky, influenced more than any other the direction of biological science in this country. Internationally, he ranks as the most important contributor to the knowledge of genetics following Gregor Mendel. Thomas was the first of three children of Charlton Hunt and Ellen Key (Howard) Morgan. Morgan's distinguished family included his great-grandfather, Francis Scott Key, who wrote the " Star-Spangled Banner"; a governor of Maryland; his uncle, Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan ; and the renowned financier J. Pierpont Morgan. His father had been the American consul to Messina, Sicily.

 Morgan was educated in the preparatory school of the State College (University of Kentucky) and in 1882 enrolled in the college proper. An outstanding student, he graduated at the top of his class in 1886 with a B.S. in zoology. Two years later, with his M.S. completed, Morgan went to Johns Hopkins University, where in 1890 he earned a Ph.D. He began teaching at Bryn Mawr College in 1891, then moved to Columbia University as professor in 1904. In 1928 Morgan became director of the new Kerckhoff Laboratories of Biological Science at the California Institute of Technology. He spent the rest of his professional life at Cal Tech, where he devoted much of his energy to fostering research and graduate programs in biology. That department was a forerunner in the integration of biology and chemistry.

Around 1900 Morgan began exploring the mechanisms of heredity, testing experimentally some of the findings of Mendel and Darwin. By 1908 he was raising fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster), which proved to be ideal subjects for studying the role of mutations in heredity. Early in 1910 Morgan concluded that the eye-color gene is located on one of the so-called sex chromosomes, thus establishing the chromosomal theory of inheritance. The discovery that the genes are on the chromosomes of all organisms was a major advance in understanding the physical basis of heredity and led to many other advances.

In 1933 Morgan became the first American nonphysician to win the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. His numerous other awards and honors included election to the National Academy of Sciences; the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and several other societies; and the Darwin and Copley medals from England's Royal Society. He characteristically attributed much of the credit for most honors to those with whom he worked. Morgan was active in research until his death. In 1904 Morgan married Lilian Vaughn Sampson; they had four children -- Howard Key, Edith Sampson, Lilian Vaughn, and Isabel Merrick. Morgan died in Pasadena, California, on December 4, 1945, and was buried there.

At the University of Kentucky, both the School of Biological Sciences and the building in which it is housed are named after Morgan. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation lists as a historical site the house on North Broadway where he grew up.

Selected Sources from UK Libraries:

Shine, Ian., Sylvia Wrobel, and University Press of Kentucky. Thomas Hunt Morgan : Pioneer of Genetics. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 1976. Print. Kentucky Bicentennial Bookshelf.
QH31.M62 S54 1976, Young Library - 5th Floor

Payne, Fernandus. Morgan, the Man and His Contribution to Science. Lexington, Ky.: [publisher Not Identified], 1936. Print.
B M8232, Special Collections Research Center - Biography Collection

Allen, Garland E. Thomas Hunt Morgan : The Man and His Science. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1978. Print.
QH429.2.M67 A44, Young Library - 5th Floor

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