George D. Snell


My parents were both New Englanders, though my father was born in Minnesota where his father had moved from Massachusetts to join a frontier community. My father moved east as a young man, and for a number of years was YMCA secretary in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Subsequently he invented and worked in the application of a device for winding induction coils used in ignitors for the motorboat engines of that day. I was born in Bradford, Massachusetts, a suburb of Haverhill, in December 1903, the youngest of three children. My parents moved when I was four to the home built by my great grandfather in Brookline, Massachusetts, and it was in the excellent Brookline public schools that I received my pre-college education.

Science and mathematics were my favorite subjects. In spare time I read books on astronomy and physics as well as the usual boyhood classics. But I also enjoyed sports, and a group of five or six youngsters used to gather at our house to play touch football or scrub baseball in our yard or a neighboring vacant lot. Imaginative stories and games also were very much a part of my childhood.

In 1900, three years before I was born, my mother’s parents had purchased a run-down farmhouse and 70 acres of land in South Woodstock, Vermont. The house was gradually restored and furnished, and the summers I spent at “the farm” were among the delights of my childhood and youth. An interest in gardening, farming, and forestry have been a permanent legacy of the experience this home provided.

Music was a major interest of the whole family. My mother played the piano, and we did a great deal of family singing in which friends often joined. It has been a source of great pleasure that my wife is also a pianist.

I entered Darmouth College in 1922 and again found science and mathematics my favorite subjects. A course in genetics taught by Professor John Gerould proved particularly fascinating, and it was that course that led me to the choice of a career. When the decision was finally made to enter graduate school, it was on Professor Gerould’s advice that I enrolled as a graduate student with Harvard’s Professor Castle, the first American biologist to look for Mendelian inheritance in mammals.

My thesis work on linkage in mice largely determined my future work. Two years spent teaching and two years as a postdoctoral fellow under Herman Muller studying the genetic effect of x-rays on mice served to convince me that research was my real love. If it was to be research, mouse genetics was the clear choice and the Jackson Laboratory, founded in 1929 by Dr. Clarence Cook Little, one of Castle’s earlier students, almost the inevitable selection as a place to work. The Laboratory was a small institution when I joined the staff of seven in 1935, but under the talented leadership of Dr. Little and his successor, Earl Green, it has grown into the world center for studies in mammalian genetics. I owe a great deal to it for providing the ideal home for my subsequent research.

It was in Bar Harbor that I met and married Rhoda Carson, and where we raised our three sons, Thomas, Roy and Peter.

I have always enjoyed sports, with skiing, which I learned at Dartmouth, and tennis perhaps being my two favorites.

While for 25 years I concentrated almost exclusively on studies of histocompatibility genes and especially of the H-2 complex, and for 35 years have pursued these subjects to some degree, I also have become involved in other areas. While working under Dr. Castle, I spent parts of two summers at Woods Hole with Dr. Phineas Whiting, an earlier student of Castle, studying the genetics of the parasitic wasp, Habrobracon. An outcome of this work was a paper on The Role of Male Parthenogenesis in the Evolution of the Social Hymenoptera. The problems of social evolution have remained a continuing interest, to which I am now returning in a more active way in retirement. The two years with Muller at the University of Texas resulted in the first demonstration of the induction by x-rays of chromosomal changes in mammals. My first several years at the Jackson Laboratory were spent in continuation of this work, and especially in the detailed genetic analysis of two of the induced reciprocal translocations. In the late 1930s, I became involved in problems of gene nomenclature in mice, and this, together with problems of strain nomenclature, remained a concern for many years. The efforts of the Committee on Standardized Nomenclature for mice have led to the universal acceptance of a well organized and convenient nomenclature system for this species. Some experiments, which I carried out at about the same time that I was becoming interested in histocompatibility genetics, led to the discovery of immunological enhancement, the curious inversion of the expected growth inhibition seen with certain tumors when transplanted to pre-injected mice. I soon found that I was not the first person to have seen this phenomenon, but the mouse system proved very amenable to further exploitation. I had to drop this topic in favor of the genetic studies, but it has been interesting to see it grow through the work of Dr. Nathan Kaliss and many others into a major area of research with possible implications for organ transplantation in man. A final interest, developed jointly with Dr. Marianna Cherry during my last few years at the Jackson Laboratory, concerned serologically demonstrable alloantigens of lymphocytes.

Much of the work sketched above was carried out on a collaborative basis. I cannot here give names, but I owe a great debt to the many wonderful people with whom it has been my privilege to work in these studies.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1980, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1981

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.


George D. Snell died on June 6, 1996.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1980

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