The Manhattan Project

Liane Russell's Interview

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Liane Russell's Interview

Liane B. Russell is a renowned geneticist. Born in Vienna, Austria, she and her family managed to flee the country after its annexation by Nazi Germany. After moving to the United States, Russell became interested in biological research. In 1947, she and her husband, William L. Russell, moved to Oak Ridge. In this interview, Russell explains her experiments on the effects of radiation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Mouse House,” including the discovery that the Y chromosome is sex-determining. She describes her work with the environmental movement and the efforts of Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, which she co-founded. She also recalls winning the Enrico Fermi Award from the Department of Energy and a visit to communist East Germany in the 1980s.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
April 25, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Oak Ridge
Transcript: 

Nathaniel Weisenberg: My name is Nate Weisenberg. I am here with the Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is April 25, 2018, here in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. I have with me Lee Russell.

Liane Russell: Right.

Weisenberg: My first question is if you could please say your name and spell it for me?

Russell: My full name is Liane B. Russell. It’s L-i-a-n-e, and the B stands for my maiden name, which is Brauch, B-r-a-u-c-h, Russell, R-u-s-s-e-l-l. Okay?

Weisenberg: My first real question is can you tell me when and where you born?

Russell: I was born in August 1923, and I was born in Vienna, Austria.

Weisenberg: What did your parents do?

Russell: My Dad was a chemical engineer and my mother was a housewife. I’m the oldest of three kids. I had a sister two years younger than me and a brother who was ten years younger than me, and ended up having nine kids.

Weisenberg: What was your childhood like growing up there?

Russell: What was my childhood like? Very good, until we had to leave. I was about fourteen-and-a-half when we left. I had my childhood and early teens in Austria and then first went to England for several years, and then from England came to the States.

This was during the war, so shipping was very greatly restricted because of U-boats in the Atlantic. It was very hard to get any kind of passenger transportation. We traveled in a Cunard, which used to be a liner, but during the war, they used it to go down to Argentina and bring back frozen beef to England.

On the way down to Argentina, they went empty and took passengers—a few, anyhow. That’s how we went from England to Argentina, and then picked up an American liner and came up from Argentina up to New York. That was a pretty adventurous trip.

Weisenberg: Yeah. Did you leave Austria because of the Anschluss?

Russell: Yes, we did, yes. We’re very lucky that we were able to leave very early. We left just five weeks afterwards. We left in—I think it was March of 1938—no, it could’ve been April. Anyhow, somewhere early in the spring, and went via Prague and Brussels to London.

Then, when the war broke out, which was a year later, our school was evacuated to a place called Berkhamsted. It was very close to London, about an hour from London, north of London. We were evacuated and lived there with a local family until we left in ’41.

We left before America got in the war, because when we came here, there was no war here. It was very strange, coming from all the bombings and everything. But in December of the same year that we arrived, of course, Pearl Harbor happened. It was a short time between wars, sort of.

I went to Hunter College in New York and then graduated in January of 1945, and went to graduate school at the University of Chicago. But in the meantime, in 1943, I attended a summer program at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. Just happened to luck into it. I saw an announcement on a bulletin board at Hunter, and just responded to that and got accepted.

I went up there and spent the summer of ’43, and it was an apprentice research program. In those days, it was very rare to have summer programs for students. Nowadays, everybody has one.

That was in the summer of ’43. In the summer of ’44, I went back there, and then after I graduated in January of ’45, I went back as a technician and worked there until I entered graduate school.

Weisenberg: How or when did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

Russell: I was going to say as soon as I entered the summer program. But before that, too, because I think my Dad always hoped I would be. I was sort of steered in that direction because he was a chemist.

I didn’t know I was going to be one. In fact, for a while, I was going to be a writer, because in my first year at Hunter, I took a writing course, and we were encouraged to send entries for the Atlantic Monthly national essay contest. I sent an entry and it won first prize, and so immediately, I got called by all sorts of magazines, and for a while that’s what I was going to be.

After that, I was going to be an M.D. and I actually took courses. I had a chemistry major and a biology minor. I had enough for entering med school, but I got talked out of it when I went to the summer program in ’43. I really got bitten by a research bug and that’s what happened.

Weisenberg: I had read that you saw a mouse embryo under a microscope?

Russell: Yes. We had what we called “tutorials.” Different staff members gave different small courses. In one of those, I was looking down a microscope and I saw a mouse’s fertilized egg, and I thought, “My God, less than three weeks from now, this is going to be a mouse, a complete mouse!” That really was an amazing thought, and that sort of got me turned on.

Weisenberg: Maine is where you met your husband?

Russell: I met my husband [Bill Russell] there, yes. He was the organizer of the summer program, so he had a lot to do with the students and the researchers that supervised the students, yeah.

Weisenberg: You worked there for a few summers?

Russell: From June of ’43 off and on, with the year out for college. I actually went from there to the University of Chicago. From January ’45 until September ’45, I was working at the lab as a technician and living up there.

Weisenberg: How did you decide to come to Oak Ridge?

Russell: I didn’t decide, but my husband decided to change jobs. He was looking for jobs and getting various interviews, and Oak Ridge was virtually the only place where I would be allowed to work also.

All the others were university jobs; they all had nepotism rulings, and I couldn’t have worked. I was able at Oak Ridge not only to work, but to do independent work. That’s why we came to Oak Ridge; that’s why he picked Oak Ridge.

We came in November of ’47, so we’ve been here—how long does that make it, seventy? Over seventy, because it was ’47.  

Weisenberg: Seventy-one years. I read in the article [“The Mouse House: A brief history of the ORNL mouse-genetics program, 1947-2009”], about a gentleman named Alexander Hollaender.

Russell: He had just started at the—it was then called the Clinton National Lab—and he had just started a biology division. Before that, they had some biology experiments, but no organized division.

In ’46, I think, Alex Hollaender started the biology division, and he was very anxious. He came from the University of Wisconsin, and he had worked with ultraviolet light. He was I guess you would call a biophysicist. He was very anxious to people the new division mostly with geneticists in various areas, drosophila [a genus of flies], neurospora [a genus of fungi], [inaudible] anything, but primarily geneticists.

I guess it was the AEC at that time, predecessor of the DOE [Department of Energy], was very concerned about fallout from nuclear tests and the effect of fallout on people’s health. They started various health programs, but particularly, they didn’t have anything on hereditary effects of radiation. That’s what Hollaender was offered, essentially, to establish at Oak Ridge. Bill was hired for that and I came along.

Weisenberg: And there had been a forest fire by the Jackson Laboratory.

Russell: Exactly. We were supposed to come earlier in the fall of ’47, but in October, there was a major forest fire, which burned up almost half the island. 

It’s a large island, and it burned almost half of—the east half of—the island. Didn’t really spread to the west. You know, Somes Sound divides the island almost into two parts, and it didn’t spread to the west.

The lab was on the east side and it really, really perished. At that time, it was just a single building. Not only was the building destroyed, but everything wood in there was burned up and all the mice were asphyxiated.

Bill had gotten some mice together to come down to Oak Ridge, and of course, they died, too. So, when we came down, we had no mice. We delayed our trip a little while because we were continuing to help fight the forest fire up there, which did not end with the burning of the lab. It went on after that, and we stayed probably two or three more weeks before we came down.

Weisenberg: What were your first impressions of Oak Ridge when you got here?

Russell: Bad. We drove down here. We left Maine in a snowstorm. It was a snow blizzard, it was blowing this way, right at the windshield; you couldn’t see a thing. Anyhow, we left in a blizzard. Of course, the weather was good after that.

We entered Oak Ridge through what is now the Clinton Highway, came in from the east end. The whole stretch between what’s called Elza Gate, the east gate to Oak Ridge, to the so-called Guest House—which was the only hotel facility—that whole stretch was built up in what we call “hutments” that were used to house the people who were building the labs and the town.

They were miserable-looking things. They were like plywood boxes. They had no windows; they had shutters that you had to open to get air. They had no plumbing; there were separate bathhouses. They had one central little pot-bellied stove. Really bad.

That’s all I saw coming from the east entrance all the way to the hotel, we were going past these miserable-looking hutments. I didn’t have a very good impression of the town. But it didn’t take more than a day before we started looking around. It was different, but not that different.

Weisenberg: Because of the fire, how did you get new mice for the laboratory?

Russell: Yes, that was a big problem, because we needed not just mice, but very special mice. We were competing with the Jackson Lab, which was also trying to build up more stocks. Of course, they were well-known, and we were not known at all because we were just starting out. It was quite a job.

Then we discovered—I don’t know how—but there was a pharmacist in Central or West Florida whose name was Mr. Holman, and he had a hobby. He was a mouse fancier—you probably don’t know what that is. It was actually a hobby, mostly during the nineteenth century. People would raise pretty mice to make, sort of, a zoo of beautiful-looking mice.

They collected weird mice, they collected naked mice, and anything they could lay their hands on. Mr. Holman was a mouse fancier, and he had converted a garage into a beautiful mouse room, just as clean as you could be. He built his own cages, they were beautifully made, and raised all these different kinds of mice.

We met him, and he was a really nice guy. He very kindly offered to give us some of his varieties, which happened to be some of the ones we wanted. By no means all of them, but a large percentage. 

He didn’t like the Jackson Lab because they were kind of offhand; they got some mice from him and never really properly thanked him. We were very appreciative; particularly, Bill was an amateur woodworker, so he appreciated the boxes Mr. Holman had made. Holman got very kindly disposed and we got a lot of mice from him.

Then after that, different well-known research facilities, eventually we got some standard strains from them, too, but it took a little while. We had at that time at X-10—which was the main location for the then-called Clinton Laboratory—they gave us a small wing of the cafeteria building. One room in that small wing became our mouse room. It was just wooden shelves, and that’s where we started constructing the strains that we needed.

We moved out of there into the Y-12 facility, which was the electromagnetic method for separating uranium isotopes. Dr. Hollaender, Alex Hollaender, was a great go-getter. He managed to latch onto three—at the time, it was two, it became three—adjacent empty buildings, and we moved into one of those.

That became the Mouse House, and then the rest of the division moved into the adjacent, much larger building. To start with, they gave us the ground floor of that, 9210, which became the Mouse House. It was going to be used during the war for a special separation method that never came to pass. It had big machinery. It was completely taken up with huge machinery that was so heavy that the floor had to be raised in little concrete pedestals.

A long period was spent just getting that machinery out, and the pedestals couldn’t be removed, so the rest of the floor was raised to be at the height of the pedestals. Finally, that first floor was empty and had a really special air conditioning. Essentially, it used HVAC filtration because it was very important to avoid any air contamination, pollution of any kind, which then could change the so-called spontaneous mutation rate. We wouldn’t have a very good baseline to compare the induced mutations to.

For that reason, this huge air conditioning system was installed. Then, all the mouse rooms were constructed. Altogether, it took about a year and a half after we got here before we could move into this building, in Y-12. Then we were on the ground floor for probably another four or five years, and then the second floor, they did the same thing. Eventually, about ten years after we moved in, we got the third floor also.

It became a very large facility that would house, I think it was 38,000 double cages. Our cages were all double. They were never totally filled, but if they had been all filled, it would’ve been like 200,000 mice. That was the capacity. We had 66 mouse rooms and each mouse room—I don’t know how long it was, but it was probably the size of a good living room in length. It had four aisles of cage racks in it, which were all filled with the cages.

Bill used a lot of his early time here just designing—designing the cages, designing the racks and washing everything. That was mostly what he was doing. He designed a really, really well-working facility.

Weisenberg: You and Bill and your colleagues made a lot of important discoveries based on this research. Maybe you could talk just generally about what a couple of those were and why they’re important.

Russell: The main mission of the program—to start with at least—was to determine radiation-induced mutation rates. Before that, there had been very little work done on anything except fruit flies and corn, maize. Those were the two organisms in which radiation-induced mutations had been studied. Trying to get something closer to man is why mice – that was the original prescribed mission, just to get radiation-induced mutation rates.

That was just the very beginning, but it stayed to be a big mission. Over the years, essentially the main purpose became to study the factors that alter both the quantity and quality of mutations. Over the years, it became different kinds of radiation. To start with, it was X-rays and gamma rays, and then it’s neutrons and internal emitters like plutonium and tritium and the neutrons, for example. We also sent mice through above-ground bomb tests, which at that time were still in progress. It was a range of radiations.

It was also originally males, male mice of a particular type of germ-cell development, not mature spermatozoa, but some of the cells that produce spermatozoa. Because spermatozoa are out and gone, whatever mutations are induced in them are of very temporary duration. The idea was to study the cells that could accumulate radiation damage, that were just sitting there, and essentially budding off cell lines that eventually produced spermatozoa. That was the original cell stage. Very soon, we got to preparing different stages from those original cells, about probably ten different stages going to mature sperm. And then, adding females at different stages.

Very early, because my mice weren’t ready, I branched off into a totally different area of research, which was teratogenesis, damage to developing embryos. That wasn’t genetic, it was a direct damage. It was developed because I was trying to do a genetic experiment not on germ cells, but on what we call “somatic cells,” just body cells.

In the process of working up the methodology for this, I got sidetracked, because I found so many abnormalities, into studying the effect on embryos. I was working on that probably about five or six years.

I found that there were critical periods in the development. At certain stages of development, you will get certain very specific types of effects. To give you an example, day eleven of an embryonic development, you would affect hands, arms. Day eleven-and-a-half, you’d do legs and feet. It was a specific critical period.

Part of the work consisted merely in studying the time relations, getting the critical periods laid out. It turns out that in the first four days, you get no abnormalities—you get only death or survival. The ones that survived were normal. After that, starting from day four on, is when you started getting the major abnormalities.

We followed up the early period also. We tried to equate the time range in mouse development to human development, by picking the same stage in humans where the heart developed in a human and the heart developed in a mouse. Plotting all those things, it turned out that it’s the first seven weeks in humans—instead of fifteen days in a mouse—that was critical for major aberrations, abnormalities. The very early periods gave a lot of death, but the survivors were normal.

Anyhow, we developed this recommendation, because at that time, there was still a lot of medical irradiation used, X-rays, just for diagnostic purposes. We recommended that if it wasn’t necessary for survival, if you could schedule irradiation, it should be restricted to the first two weeks following a menstrual period.

That became known as the—some people call it a ten-day rule, some call it a fourteen-day rule. Anyhow, it went into the medical literature, and it’s still in use now. The problem is most women don’t know they’re pregnant, so just being asked “might you be pregnant?” isn’t going to help. That’s why we set a specific time range.

But it was safer to do the radiation because ovulation occurs halfway between menstruations.

If you were between menstruation for the next two weeks, there wouldn’t be anything. After that, for maybe a day or two or three would be the time when you didn’t get [inaudible].

That became pretty well-known in medical practice. It’s still being used as far as I know. That was a sideline. A little byproduct was I worked out, very quickly scored quantitative response that could detect very small amounts of radiation to embryos. That became known as a quick test for somatic damage.

Then, I stopped the teratogenesis. More or less stopped it, although I got back a little bit, went back into genetics research in, I would say, probably the late fifties. Besides the mutagenesis, there were so many, many other things, much more basic findings, that we went off on.  

For example, the mutations were essentially our tools. The fact that we had so many mutations really was a help. We determined pretty early that we would not only just count them, but we would maintain them, propagate them.

We ended up with hundreds of strains that propagated mutations. They became great genetic tools for finding out a lot of other things. Eventually, combined with molecular genetics, it gave us not only fine, small-scale genetic maps, but molecular maps, correlations of structure and function.

That was just Bill and me, but then we got many other people to join the program. The earliest one—back in ’51, I think—was Gene Oakberg, who studied germ cell development. That was very essential to know what our targets were, what the radiation was, what kind of cells it was hitting.

Strangely enough, very little was known about the timing and the manner of, particularly, male germ cell development, which is very complex because you get all the successive stages. After just doing the normal development, he also studied the effects of radiation on different stages of germ cells. That was Gene Oakberg.

Then we next had some visiting and temporary people. Bill Welshons, Ernie Chu, who was a cytogeneticist. In the sixties we had—I may be wrong about the dates—we had Gary Sega, who was very interested in the metabolism of germ cells and things like the nature of DNA damage. He developed some methods for different scoring of damage.

Later on, we had Bob Cumming, and in the late eighties, we fortunately got DOE’s permission to hire some molecular geneticists. Then, we really went to town getting all the genetic material studied by molecular methods. That was just a very quick summary of the types of things that were also studied.

Weisenberg: One thing I wanted to ask you about was how you helped determine that the Y chromosome determined sex.

Russell: I’m glad you asked that. I’d almost forgotten about it.

That actually did not require irradiation. We found a spontaneous mutation that we called scurfy, and it made a mouse look crummy, sick. To start with, Bill was just throwing these out, because he thought, “This is a sick mouse.”

Pretty soon, it appeared that all of them were males. It turned out to be actually the first sex-linked mutation in a mouse. Because these crummy-looking males died before they could reproduce, Bill had to use a method he developed actually before coming here, which was ovarian transplantation from affected females. Once in a rare while, we’d get not just males, but occasionally a female. After quite a bit of study, it turned out that these females carried only one X chromosome, with a mutation on it. There was an equal number that carried one chromosome without the mutation.

You had females that had one X and nothing else, and males that had the one X and a Y. It turned out that XO—which was one X and nothing else—was a female, which was different from drosophila [a genus of flies] where XO was a male.

With the evidence from those XO females, it was easy to conclude that the Y chromosome was male-determining in a mouse—which is also different from drosophila, where male is determined by the balance between the number of Xs and Ys. If there was a Y present in a mouse, it’s always a male. But, if Y in drosophila, it depends on the ratio. The finding of the XO females led to—along with the finding of other abnormal sex chromosome combinations—led to the conclusion that the Y was male-determining.

The other thing that was very interesting, a little later—we found what turned out to be rearrangements between an X and what we call an “autosome,” which is a non-sex chromosome. Sticking part of an X to part of an autosome, it turned out that the genes on that piece of autosome got inactive whenever the X was inactive.

It was just first near the junction, but spreading a certain distance from the junction. These were called the X-autosome translocations. Normal translocations, ordinary ones, are between two autosomes; piece of one joining piece of another, and reciprocally the other piece joining that piece. But with the X autosome translocation, we discovered, because the genes on the autosome were inactivated—and this was found in a mottled mouse—it wasn’t the same color all over, just part of it.

That led to the conclusion that only one X is active. Even though every mammal has two Xs, only one of the two is active.  Which one it is, is random, so every female is actually a mosaic of two different kinds of cells. Some cells in which this X is active, and some cells in which the other one is active. That led to a study of what we call mosaicism, animals that have different genes active in different part of the body. It was a fertile field.

Weisenberg: One other detail in the article you mentioned was a chemical called ENU.

Russell: That didn’t happen until probably the seventies. We got into testing chemicals. Some of that was wished on us, essentially, we were asked to do. We used the same old methods that had been used for the radiation mutagenesis. I don’t know how many chemicals, probably thirty or forty altogether, maybe more. That we studied, not all of them to the same extent.

One very interesting thing that came out of that is that one chemical called ethylnitrosourea turned out to be a super mutagen, induced huge numbers of mutations. Not only that, but they were all single-locus mutations. Instead of breaks or instead of cutting out a piece of chromosome like radiation does, they made just one spot mutation.

That became very soon used pretty worldwide by people who just wanted to make mutations. This was a great method for making them. Normally, they’re pretty rare. ENU is the abbreviation; ENU became a mutagen of choice for making mutations.

The other thing I meant to tell you, nothing to do with chemical mutagens—well, it does in a way. I told you when I first got here I was trying to develop a method for measuring mutations in somatic cells and I sidetracked into the embryo work.

After I got sidetracked, I went back to the original experiment. We used some of the same markers which were external markers—color, ear size—for the somatic mutation. Because there are so many more targets, you can pick up a mutation in many more cells. Day eleven, I think, was the optimum time for inducing a mutation that was easily visible.

If you have an embryo, and you make a mutation in one cell, as the embryo grows, the cell multiplies—makes a spot. If you do it when there are too many target cells, it’s not going to grow that much more; it’s going to be a very small spot, might not be visible. If you do it too early, there’d be so few target cells that you wouldn’t have that great a chance to find it. If you do it at the optimum stage you get a spot maybe this size that you can easily see.

That developed into what we call the spot test. It became a very favorite. It’s a short-term test—a genetic test—because it measures mutations not in a reproductive cell, but in a body cell. The spot test was another method we had developed here.

Weisenberg: One other question I had was if you could talk a little bit about some of the technicians and caretakers that you worked with.

Russell: First of all, we had animal caretakers. When we were still in that single mouse room at X-10, we had one animal caretaker. Eventually, this built up into seventeen, or something close to twenty, caretakers.

They would do things like—once a week all the mice got transferred into a clean cage with clean shavings. Then also once a week, but on a different day, the bottles got changed and washed and sterilized and stuff. Then they had big machines for washing the cages, they had bottle carts. That’s what the animal caretakers did. As I say, that built up to almost 20 when we had a very large population of mice.

On top of that, we had technicians. The technicians were doing the treatments with radiation or chemicals. They would score the mutations; they would breed different mutant stocks. They were almost all bachelor-level college graduates and a few of them were masters’. To start with, they were all female, which was amazing. At the early time, many of them came from the southern women’s colleges. You wouldn’t think that was a likely job for these girls to work with dirty mice. But they were great.

We had one woman by the name of Gloria. She was like somebody out of Gone with the Wind, exactly like that. She developed this great method for catching mice. If a mouse gets on the floor, if you drop it, it goes all over the place just that quick, you know. They’re hard to catch, particularly because there’s a rack that goes down the center of the mouse room. They would get to the other side. By the time you were over there, it’d go back.

Gloria developed this wonderful method. She would spread out her lab coat and crouch down so she made a tent over the mouse. The mouse got very quiet, because it was dark in there. It wasn’t scared, didn’t run around. She could just grab in there and pick him up. It was particularly wonderful, because as I said, she looked like somebody out of Gone with the Wind.

We had a great group of technicians, and they were very compatible. It was like a social club, almost. They had parties and get-togethers and things like that. Then of course, we had some of the senior investigators. Eventually we had two males, but that was pretty late. But, for a long time they were all women. So, that was a good group.

Weisenberg: At this point, was it called the Mammalian Genetics Division? Is that right?

Russell: No, it was a section in the Biology Division. To start with, there were, I think, three sections, and Mammalian Genetics was one of them. These things changed over the years, after Dr. Hollaender retired. There were different division directors, and one of them had the great idea—no, I was wrong, there were six sections—of combining some of them.

All of a sudden, I was a section head. I ended up with, instead of like eight PhDs and lots of technicians, I ended up with over a hundred PhDs, because some of these other sections didn’t have many technicians, but had mostly senior researchers. It was very unwieldy. All of a sudden, instead of a lovely, cohesive, friendly group, there were all these jealousies and problems.

Eventually, maybe three or four years after that, the next director was wise enough to split us up again. We went back, became Mammalian Genetics. There was always something attached to it. It’d be Mammalian Genetics and Reproduction, or Mammalian Genetics and Development, but it always was Mammalian Genetics to start with.

Weisenberg: Shifting gears a little bit, what do you think Oak Ridge’s legacy is for human health and understanding the effects of radiation?

Russell: It did the whole area of radiation risks, genetic risks. The permissible doses were set by committees. There was a UN committee, an international committee called UNSCEAR, U.N. Scientific Committee on [the Effects of] Atomic Radiation.

Then there was a National Academy, American committee. Between those two committees, radiation permissible doses for the whole world, essentially, were set by these committees. They essentially used our data, that’s what we supplied. The permissible doses were set on the basis of the data accumulated here.

We had some interesting ups and downs, because very early we found the mutation rate for those particular cells I told you about—the male germ cells that budded off, eventually, sperm—and compared a mouse with drosophila which originally all the data came from. The mouse had ten times higher mutation rate.

All of a sudden, the permissible doses were lowered, because it seemed like the risk was a lot higher. Later on, we found that protracted irradiation—if you have a given dose, say 100 roentgens, you can give it all in the course of a few minutes, or you can give it spread out over a year or so. The spread-out doses were much less powerful than the acute doses.

That resulted, again – and they said, “Oh, raise the doses.” So it had its ups and downs, and female mutation rates depended very much on the stage. Essentially, the up-to-date findings had an influence on the permissible rates over time. I think they stabilized, essentially.

Weisenberg: You had mentioned that Bill went to a nuclear test in Nevada.

Russell: Oh, yes. That was wonderful. You know, they eventually stopped above-ground testing, but—maybe it wasn’t the last one—it was very near the last one. They tested them in the Nevada desert at a place called Camp Mercury.

Bill and Gene Oakberg went in our old Ford and took a bunch of mice. They were going to measure things that could be measured fairly quickly. One thing was what we called “dominant lethals,” which are mutations, mostly chromosome aberrations, that killed. Killed the offspring, not the mice that had them.

The other thing, we were doing some embryological—irradiating embryos at a particular stage, where it would be easy to measure the abnormalities. At the time of the bomb, they had to be at the right stage of pregnancy.

These mice were taken out in this old Ford. In the backseat, there was a raised place for, I guess, the axel or something. They built a special wooden rack that fitted over that and was as wide as the car and had two or three layers. They had mouse cages on that and drove out to Nevada.

We had a wonderful cartoonist in our group, who was the supervisor of the animal caretakers. He drew all these great cartoons of what would happen to these guys. Every night they stayed in a motel. They waited until it was dark, so they could carry these cages into their room, because it looked like a child’s coffin, about the same size. They would carry it into their motel room and spend all night filling up the water bottles. They couldn’t keep the bottles on while they were driving, because they would leak. He had cartoons about that and how they registered at the desk with the mice behind them.

Anyway, they had this wonderful trip out to Camp Mercury, and the mice got exposed. The bomb went off on a tower that was built up above the desert floor. They had these, what they called “hemispheres,” which were like lead igloos, seven inches of lead thickness to shield out all the gamma radiation. It was supposed to be just the neutrons from the bomb.

Inside the hemisphere—they were like mushrooms. It was just stuck down into the sand, and the hemisphere rested on the desert floor. The inside was large enough to take a few mice, drosophila, whatever. There were lots of other people there exposing things. It was air-conditioned in the inside, and they had these hemispheres set up at different distances from where the bomb tower was.

They were out there two or three weeks ahead of the actual test. They spent that time training how they could get the material out of there in minimum time, because everything was horribly radioactive after the bomb went off. You could only spend like seconds or minutes with all you had to grab in there and get everything out, and they trained to do that.

When the bomb went off, they retrieved all the mice. Bill flew home with the mice in an old DC-3, I think. It was an Army plane. Brought the mice home here the same day that the bomb had gone off.

They had to wear shoe scuffs and special clothing. Well, when he got to the lab the next morning, he was told that he had to wear shoe scuffs. It turned out that the cloud with the fallout had moved from Nevada to Oak Ridge, and we had fallout rain.

People would measure radiation on their cars, they would put film—here in Oak Ridge—they put film on the car to see the spots of exposure that were made by radiation. There was a lot of fallout. Bill and the mice were clean, but the cloud had come almost as fast as he had. It’s very interesting.

Weisenberg: Wow.

Russell: The mice were in good shape and we could get all the endpoints. And then Gene Oakberg drove the car back.

The other adventure, totally unrelated, was that I had stayed at home because I had just had our second baby. She was just weeks old. I had my mother staying with me, and my mother decided the baby was deaf. I would call Bill in Camp Mercury and say, “We have a deaf baby.”

My mother turned out to be wrong. All the time he was there, and one of the people that was also staying at the camp was a pediatrician. Bill asked him about that, and he said, “Who told you?”

He said, “My mother-in-law.”

He said, “Pay no attention to mothers-in-law.”

But that was a sidelight of the bomb test.

Weisenberg: One other question I had for you was the [Oak Ridge National] Laboratory has the Liane B. Russell Fellowship now?

Russell: Yes. That was created about three or four years ago. It is, essentially, for young women getting their own independent research facilities. Because so many women who were just as educated as some of the men ended up working as a partner or technician—not a high-level technician—to somebody instead of doing their own research.

This is one way of getting young women their independent facilities and opportunities. They’re not all biologists, they’re everything—they’re physicists, mathematicians. They have been doing about three a year. The first three happened to be – every one of them was Chinese. It’s very interesting.

Weisenberg: What does that fellowship mean to you?

Russell: Oh, I was very honored. I mean, I’m not doing anything for it, it’s my name. I meet with them when they first arrive. Once in a while I meet another one in between. But it’s very gratifying.

Weisenberg: I know you have a story as well about when you received the [Enrico] Fermi Award.

Russell: I received the Fermi Award in ’95 [1993], or thereabouts. Some of our technicians went up to Washington to be there when I got it. It was very nice. I received it; I was supposed to see President Clinton, and he happened to be out of town on some function. I got to see Vice President Gore and went to his office, and he wanted my family brought in.

Well, my daughter was up there and she didn’t know I was going. She was wearing some real old clothes, and they found her somewhere and they grabbed her and said, “Come to Gore’s office.” We have a picture—I have it right up there—of Vice President Gore and Bill and me and my daughter, wearing this crummy old thing.

He was very great. He had been very, very helpful before he became—he was originally a representative, and then a senator. Even while he was still a representative, he came to the lab, and he really stuck around and really wanted to learn. So many of the others came, and it was just a photo-op for them. But he really wanted to learn; he stuck around and listened to people. He was fairly familiar with our program.

We had some interesting visitors altogether. We had the Queen of Greece, we had President Carter, and he was also very interested. They got a program for him where five different people from all the lab—physicists and earth scientists, everybody. I was the one that did the biology, and so five of them gave him little talks. We got really rehearsed for that. But before that, he’d been around, and he also was interested. He was very, very bright, very scientifically educated, I think.

Weisenberg: You’ve been involved in the environmental movement for a very long time. I wonder if you could say a little bit about how you got involved in that?

Russell: Yes. Actually, since 1965. Bill and I had always been outdoors a lot. We had done the Smokies and we wanted to go in the Cumberlands. A woman who worked in our building was married to a guy, a Dutchman, who was working at the lab. He was a great paddler, and he had explored many of the Cumberland rivers—which are really whitewater rivers—solo. He had just taken his own kayak and gone down and explored it. He found one that he particularly loved, and he wouldn’t tell anyone about it, because he didn’t want it to get developed.

Well, she decided we were all right to be trusted. The two—their names were John and Barbara Bombay—they took Bill and me on a two-day canoe trip down the Obed River. They had kayaks, and we had a canoe, and we camped overnight. It’s a beautiful river. It has huge sandstone boulders; it’s in a sandstone gorge, very wild. We camped on this huge boulder, caught our own fish, cooked them for dinner, and it was a great trip. This was in June of ’65.

Almost Christmas Eve of that same year, there was a little item in the local paper, in the Knoxville paper, saying the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] was about to build a dam on that. I hid the paper from Bill, because I didn’t want to spoil his Christmas. But then we looked at it afterwards and we were really upset. It was such a gorgeous place.

We got into trying to save that river. We formed a group called Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning in 1966. It took until 1979 for the river to be protected. First, we killed the dam idea, we did that. But we thought we had to go beyond that and get some positive protection.

First, we passed—actually wrote and passed—a Tennessee State Scenic Rivers Act, which passed. The Obed was on it. There were about nine rivers on it. It got amended off at the last minute. Then we tried to get it on the National Wild and Scenic Rivers, which was going through the Congress the same year. The Obed actually got on it in the “study river” category. There were some instant rivers and some study rivers, so it was one of, I think, 30 or so—no, not quite that many—study rivers.

After that, they had a long study—BOR [Bureau of Outdoor Recreation] study—that our group really contributed to. I mean, the group did a lot to kill the dam to start with, but then participated in the study in a lot of different ways. BOR found the river to qualify for almost 100 miles.

That was wonderful, but then all sorts of local opposition arose. We finally ended up—the story is too long to tell, but if you’re interested I can give you an account—ended up with 45 miles. Because, being in the study category is not enough, you have to have a bill actually designating the river as a Wild and Scenic River. We finally found a congresswoman [Marilyn Lloyd] who had only been in the job for about a couple of months because her husband was running for Congress, and he got killed in an airplane accident. She became a candidate instead of him, so she was totally inexperienced. She had to be really coached, but she eventually wrote the bill that passed in 1979.

This year, by the way, is an anniversary of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers bill, which got passed in ’68. Niki Nicholas may have told you they’re celebrating that this year at the Obed.

Weisenberg: Yes. It sounds like it was quite a struggle.

Russell: Oh, it was a major struggle. But that turned out to be just one. Very soon after we had beaten the Obed dams, we got into a lot of other areas, the Big South Fork. There was another dam proposed for it, the Devils Jump Dam. We killed that one, and then we worked for many years getting the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

That was a very complex struggle, too. Ended up a lot bigger than it would’ve been if it had been a Wild and Scenic River. If it had been a Wild and Scenic River, it would’ve been just a corridor, you know, with a little bit up on top. But it ended up 125,000 acres with a lot of land up on top.

Then we got into strip mine legislation and into other rivers and into the Appalachians in general. So, TCWP was really tackling a lot of different issues. But the Obed was the first one, and that was since 1966 and still going.

Weisenberg: Are there any other stories you’d like to share or things that you think people should know about Oak Ridge and its legacies?

Russell: One of the things we worked on was protecting the greenbelts, because Oak Ridge has a lot of greenbelt. Actually, this happened even before we started TCWP. One day, we saw this group of people just walking through here, and it turned out they were going to map the route of a major power line—69 kV, it’s huge—and it was supposed to go on the turnpike.

They didn’t want to mess up the turnpike, which is a big mess already. It wouldn’t matter to put it down there. They wanted to take it through the greenbelt. We tried to find out what’s going on. It was going to go up here and up to the top of the ridge, and then run on the ridge for nine miles or more, then come back down to a power station down below.

This was actually our first fight. We fought that one, before TCWP was started, and not only did we squash the power line, but we also wanted some positive protection for the greenbelt. We thought if we developed a trail up there, people would get to—most people didn’t even know it was there—you would get a constituency in favor of keeping the greenbelt.

We developed the North Ridge Trail, which is eleven miles long and goes all the way from the east end almost to the west end of Oak Ridge in the northern greenbelts. It’s just a walking trail, just wide enough for one or two people. It’s a lovely trail, it goes up and down into little creek beds.

It’s already fulfilled its purpose, because there have been other threats. Somebody else wanted to build a road through to a development. We managed to beat that, and altogether greenbelt protection became an Oak Ridge issue, which it has been since 1965. So that’s one way we got involved in Oak Ridge.

Weisenberg: What issues are you working on today with TCWP?

Russell: Today?

Weisenberg: Yeah.

Russell: Among other things, I do the newsletter, which comes out every two months. It’s quite extensive. I’m going to give you a copy. That takes up a lot of my time. But, other than that, I just participate as a board member, not nearly as much as I used to do. I used to do a ton, and Bill did, too.

Bill was essentially, forcibly retired in 1975 at the age of 65, because at the time, that was retirement age. After he retired, he became a half-time consultant, and so he had a little time to do things. He was immensely involved in trying to beat the Tellico Dam on the Little T [Little Tennessee River], because that was a lovely river, too, the Little T. Not successful.

The other thing he really fought hard was the Duck River. There are two dams, Normandy and Columbia, and he was fighting, at that time they were doing the Normandy. That was the worst, the most unjustified dam that was ever built. But he lost that one, too. That was one of the things that we were doing, too. That was really sort of a heartbreaker.

Another thing we were involved in is trying to get more wilderness designated in the Cherokee National Forest. That’s really weird. Both senators, Senator Alexander and Senator Corker, have been sponsoring a bill ever since like five years ago, the same bill. Can’t get the House to support it. 

That’s a current, current issue.

We’ve been trying with things like coal ash basins at the TVA power plants, and that took a step forward. It’s now taken another step backwards, because finally, finally, they passed a good regulation. Of course, the current EPA just threw it out the window.

That’s a real problem, because the coal ash has a lot of toxic agents in it, and they just store it in ponds, most of them not even lined. You get groundwater leaching out of those ponds, and—was it in 2008?—at Kingston, they had one of the ponds burst. They got all this coal ash to spill out all over the land there, and it’s a major problem. It’s all over the country, the coal-ash ponds. That’s another issue we’re in.

Weisenberg: One other question I just thought of—and this is totally going back very far—but I remember reading that when you had to leave Austria, you had to hide or get rid of your books. Is that right?

Russell: Oh, yeah. You know, as soon as the Anschluss happened, they were searching for what they considered subversive books. Many people, people who had a fireplace, would burn up their books. But we didn’t have a fireplace, so we flushed them down the toilet. We’d tear out the pages, because you couldn’t put too much down or you’d plug the toilet. My sister and I were spending days just flushing books down the toilet. That was interesting.

It turned out that the reason we were able to get out so early was because one day, my parents were out. Just my sister and I were in. This knock on the door, it was this gigantic SS guy— he was like 6’4” or something, in his black uniform, knocking on the door, looking for my dad. Eventually, he wanted to take over my dad’s business, which he could’ve done anyhow. My dad was representing some chemical plants from England, companies from England, and maybe some other countries. He wanted to take over those representation things, whatever they’re called.

He was trying to play nice and he wanted to send my dad to England to talk to them. He said he wouldn’t go unless we all went. So we all went. We spent probably three weeks packing. We thought everything would get moved over there, so we packed things carefully, wrapped things like glasses, everything. Never came, they never sent it, which was all right. You know, it’s because of him we were able to get out that quickly. It turned out for the best.

Weisenberg: That’s fortunate in a way, yes.

Russell: It’s very interesting. My sister, way later in the fifties, she went for a visit to Vienna, and she went to see this guy who had taken over my dad’s office. In his office, he had, from our apartment, he had gotten rugs from the apartment, he got pictures hanging up on the wall. It’s interesting.

Weisenberg: One other interesting story I had read about is that you got to go to East Germany in 1981.

Russell: To Germany. Oh, yeah, that was fun. You know, the spot test I told you about, they had a lab in East Germany—I’ve forgotten the name of the place—that wanted also to do the spot test. So they organized a meeting devoted to spot tests.

I was visiting somebody who had worked here—actually thought he was going to stay here, but eventually went back, Udo Ehlingand he had set up a mouse genetics lab near Munich. I was visiting him, and one of his collaborators, who is still a good friend of mine, was going to drive to this meeting in East Germany. She was going to drive me, and we drove up there. She took along a trunk full of coffee, sugar, because they didn’t have it. The host up there was going to have a little party. Couldn’t have a party unless she brought all these foods to him.  

We drove up to—it was just a long day’s trip—but getting across the border was fascinating. Because there was all this no-man’s land between the two fences, like from here maybe to the other side of the valley. We would hand them documents on the West Germany side, and they would shoot them through a tube to the East Germany side. After we got all cleared, we were able to go across there.

Coming back out of East Germany, they searched our cars, because at that time, there were a lot of people trying to leave by hiding in other people’s cars. They would open the hood, they had these long spikes with sharp points, they’d poke it all between the parts of the engine to make sure there was no one underneath. They wheeled mirrors under the car. Boy, it was amazing.

East Germany was very depressing. It was very austere, you know. The store shelves were empty, the road services were horrible, the lights were hardly on, it was just a very depressing place to be. Interesting visit.

When I got back, I was visited by a CIA guy who wanted me to tell him all I knew about East Germany. Of course, I didn’t know very much. But he had all these questions about science. All I knew was this particular meeting.