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)