Demerec, M. (Milislav), 1895-1966

Alternative names
Birth 1895-01-11
Death 1966-04-12

Biographical notes:

Milislav Demerec, who immigrated from Yugoslavia in 1919, worked as a geneticist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York from 1923-1960. His major work was in maize genetics, on Drosophila virilis, and radiation and chemical mutagens.

From the description of Papers, 1919-1966. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122464703

Papers of James V. Neel, pioneering human population geneticist and professor in the Department of Human Genetics, University of Michigan Medical School. Curt Stern's first graduate student at the University of Rochester, and a post-doctoral student under Theodosius Dobzhansky, Neel began his career as a Drosophila geneticist, but after taking his first professional appointment as an assistant professor at Dartmouth, decided to alter his course into human genetics. Reasoning that he needed a solid medical education to complement his genetical training, he returned to Rochester in 1942 to study for an MD.

Like all medical students during the Second World War, Neel was inducted into military service. Rochester was the base for studies in radiation biology associated with the Manhattan Project, and at the end of the war, with Neel still in the military, a chance friendship with the adjutant to the head of the project resulted in Neel's appointment to help organize a genetical survey of the atomic bomb survivors. In 1946-1947, Neel lived in Hiroshima, organizing this project, part of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Committee (ABCC), and he maintained a close connection to the study until his death. His work in Japan mushroomed, too, into a series of related projects into the biology and genetics of consanguinity, among other topics.

While at Rochester, Neel also began to establish a name for himself in other areas of human genetics. As a resident at Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital, Neel encountered a case of thalassemia, and reading the medical literature, he became convinced that it was a genetic recessive disease. Over a span of five years, he delineated the genetic basis of haemoglobin diseases - first thalassemia, then sickle cell disease - in the process, helping to precipitate the revolution in biochemical genetics of the 1950s through 1970s. Neel's work also encompassed the evolutionary implications for these diseases, implanting balanced polymorphism and heterozygote advantage into the vocabularies of evolutionary biologists. Neel's studies of thalassemia and sickle cell disease were recognized with the receipt of the Lasker Award in 1955.

In the late 1950s, Neel entered into a third major set of projects, turning to extensive field studies in population genetics. Recognizing that the number of human populations isolated from modern medicines and modern technology was rapidly dwindling, Neel embarked on an ambitious genetic survey of the comparatively "primitive" Xavante of Brazil and, later, the Yanomamo of the Brazilian-Venezuelan borderlands. These studies, carried out over the course of more than a decade, and involving even longer spans of laboratory work, constitute the first and most comprehensive studies of human population and breeding structure and genetic diseases among "primitive" peoples. Dr. Neel died in February, 2000.

From the guide to the James V. Neel, papers, ca. 1939-1999, Circa 1939-1999, (American Philosophical Society)

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, Demerec left Cornell for Cold Spring Harbor, where his most productive years of research followed. Beginning as a member of the staff of the Department 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.

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.

From the guide to the Milislav Demerec Papers, 1919-1966, (American Philosophical Society)


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Ark ID:


  • Human population genetics
  • Indians of South America--Brazil
  • Penicillin
  • Heredity
  • Environmental health
  • Radiation--Physiological effect
  • Amerindians
  • Mutagens
  • Biology--Research
  • Radiogenetics
  • Mutation (Biology)
  • Cattle--Breeding
  • Genetics--Research
  • Atmospheric radiation
  • Drosophila virilis
  • Longevity--Genetic aspects
  • Drosophila--Genetics
  • Xavante Indians
  • Chemical mutagenesis
  • Plant genetics
  • Breeding
  • Indians of South America--Venezuela
  • Yanomamo Indians
  • Political refugees
  • Hematology
  • Antibiotics
  • Maize Genetics
  • Consanguinity


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