Dunn died again today

Posted by Michael on March 18, 2013

By Melinda Gormley

Dunn died again today. This is the third, perhaps fourth, time. I have no idea how many more times it will happen. I don’t know how many more times I can endure it. Today’s was the saddest so far. I got up, left the library, and walked two blocks on South 5th Street before sitting down on stairs outside of the Philadelphia Sports Club. I try to compose myself. It’s 2005. I’m 31 and I have a lump in my throat and am near tears over a man who died 4 days before I was born. No one warns you about this in grad school.

Today started out much the same as every other weekday since my arrival more than two months ago. I wake up around 7:00 am, clean up and get dressed before heading down the two flights of stairs to the kitchen. I’m subleasing part of the 3rd floor of a Philadelphia row house on Bainbridge near 22nd. I eat breakfast, make a lunch, and try to coerce “skitty kitty” out of hiding to no avail. I wonder how my cat is doing and make a mental note to call my aunt. I walk to the bus stop and wait. The ride downtown is a straight shot and then it’s three blocks to the American Philosophical Society. I want to maximize my time at the library because it’s only open from 9:00 am to 4:45 pm, Monday through Friday.  I arrive within minutes of when they open. I work for 3-4 hours, go outside for lunch and am gone less than one hour. I usually return for another 3-4 hours and leave around the time that the library closes. Not today.

Today, I trade my lunch sack and purse for my laptop when I get to my locker and after signing in I take my usual seat at one of the heavy wood tables and start up my computer. The librarian expected my return and has box 4 of the Theodosius Dobzhansky Papers ready for me to pick up. I sit down and take the next folder out of the box. I read through each piece of paper recording what I think I will need to write a biography on L.C. Dunn. That’s when it happens.

“Dear Louise,” Dobzhansky writes. “Some ten or fifteen years ago Dunny and I agreed that whoever survives will write a memorial for him who dies first. Alas, it is my duty to fulfill the agreement. I know next to nothing about Dunny’s younger days, really until 1936 when we met and became close friends. Particularly in Dunny’s case, a memorial should devote attention to his personality as much as to his science. It would be the greatest favor if you could loan me his whole oral history interview.”

Louise packed up and shipped the more than 1000-page transcript from her home in New York to Dobzhansky in California.

“Dodick, I think your first sentence is admirable!,” she praised him three months later. “No truer statement could be made about Dunn, and I accept the memorial as a whole.” She agreed — Dunn was an admirable human being and eminent scientist whose scientific and human qualities were inseparable. It was Dunn’s reputation as a geneticist and his activism on social and political issues involving science that drew me to write my dissertation on him. 

He considered his colleagues his friends and went to great lengths for them. He met Victor Jollos at the harbor when his ship arrived to New York in 1934. Jollos was one of five biologists who Dunn helped to relocate to the United States after Nazi laws forced each out of Germany. He used his expertise as a geneticist to fight against eugenics and racism which was inspired by his son who had cerebral palsy and his best friend’s autistic brother who was euthanized by Nazis. When libraries and laboratories were destroyed by bombs and fires during World War II, Dunn rounded up reprints and textbooks from his American colleagues and shipped them to the Soviet Union, Japan, England, and elsewhere. He also sent Drosophila to geneticist Otto Mohr in Norway. In 1958 he joined a lawsuit against the US government’s Atomic Energy Commission for violating constitutional and human rights and endangering the health of the plaintiffs, including himself, by testing atomic bombs. That the AEC could retaliate by not continuing to fund his research gave Dunn pause, but didn’t stop him from suing the AEC.    

Almost a year passed and Dobzhansky still hadn’t written the other memoir. Louise’s sorrow and ire spilled onto the stationary. “I was – and am – hurt and disappointed that you attached so little importance to carrying out a promise to Dunny which I know would have been fulfilled months ago if he had had to do it for you.  And you know this too.” Had this interaction happened in person I imagine Louise propped up with madness and jabbing her index finger at Dobzhansky before deflating. “It has been sixteen long months since Dunny died – very long months for me. He considered you a good friend, but I wonder —.”

Not two months later in September 1975 Dobzhansky got sick, really sick and things came into perspective. He had to finish Dunn’s memorial now because he might not have another chance. In October he sent it to colleagues for their comments and returned the 1000-page transcript to Louise. She apologized, “My heart, and not my head, had been acting. I did not want Dunny slighted after his death.” Her reply was prompt and would have reached Dobzhansky before he passed away that December.

I sat on the stairs, cell phone in hand, relieved that it was late enough to call California. I pushed 2 on the speed dial and instantly felt better hearing my mom’s voice.