Fayette County

He’s Kentucky’s first Nobel Prize winner. Celebrate his birthday by supporting science

Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) of Lexington is the only Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize. He received the Nobel in medicine in 1933 for pioneering research in genetics.
Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) of Lexington is the only Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize. He received the Nobel in medicine in 1933 for pioneering research in genetics. UK Special Collections

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Lexington’s most distinguished scientist — Kentucky’s first Nobel Prize winner and the father of modern genetics research — recently came and went with little notice beyond the scientific world.

The University of Kentucky’s biology department held several events to honor Thomas Hunt Morgan, who was born Sept. 25, 1866. Kentucky American Water Co. made Morgan’s birthday the theme for this year’s Fayette County Public Schools science fair in February. But that was about it.

Morgan’s uncle, Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, continues to attract more attention in Lexington, mainly because of his controversial statue on the old courthouse lawn.

For such an educated city, you would think we wouldn’t celebrate the wrong Hunt Morgan. (One suggestion: name the new public high school for Thomas Hunt Morgan. There is no better example of how far education can take a Lexington kid.)

At least the folks at UK biology did right by their most famous alumnus, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there before getting his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in 1890. Morgan’s experiments with fruit flies led to discoveries about the role of chromosomes in heredity that won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1933. He died in 1945.

UK’s “Month of Morgan” included screenings of the film “The Fly Room” — set in Morgan’s laboratory at Columbia University — at the Kentucky Theatre and the Thomas Hunt Morgan House, his boyhood home on North Broadway. Four more events are planned through Oct. 24. More info: Bio.as.uky.edu/month-th-morgan.

The eighth annual Thomas Hunt Morgan Lecture was Tuesday evening. It was given by Sean B. Carroll, an award-winning scientist whose remarks were a good reminder of why scientific research is vital — and not just to scientists.

Carroll leads science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the nation’s largest private supporter of science education, and is a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin. He also is a best-selling author and producer of television documentaries.

Carroll spoke about his new book, “The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters,” which grew out of a family trip to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, famous for its proliferation of African wildlife.

“To understand how life works, we need to understand the rules of regulation,” Carroll said, noting that every aspect of life is regulated by something. Discovering those regulators and how to manipulate them has led to big advances in medicine, such as statin drugs to regulate cholesterol.

The rules of regulation also are key to understanding why plant and animal populations thrive or disappear. Some species are more important than others, and these “keystone” species can have huge indirect effects on others, including man.

Understanding those effects and acting on them can restore balance to nature. For example, Carroll said, wildlife populations rebounded strongly in the Serengeti after a cattle disease introduced by agriculture in the 1930s was eradicated two decades later.

Rinderpest spread from cattle to wild buffalo and wildebeest. Once it was eradicated, their numbers increased and had a huge cascading effect on the rest of the ecosystem. More grazing wildebeest meant shorter grass and less fire, which led to higher plant and animal populations across the board.

A similar effect happened in Yellowstone National Park, where scientists in the 1980s tried to figure out why aspen trees there were disappearing. They discovered that the trees were being overgrazed by elk because their chief predator, wolves, had been exterminated by hunters there in the 1920s. Since the reintroduction of wolves in the 1990s, the elk population is more in balance, and aspen trees are returning. That, in turn, has led to more willow trees and, in turn, more beaver.

“We need a whole lot more support for ecological research,” Carroll said. “It’s not about making the world pretty; it’s about understanding how it works” and ensuring human health and long-term survival.

“Humans are the ultimate keystone species,” Carroll said, and the world’s human population has quadrupled in the past century. “We have inserted ourselves into almost every food chain.”

Human activity is having huge ecological effects, from overfishing and pollution to climate change, and much remains unknown about the potential consequences. But humans also have one big advantage over other species, Carroll said: “We’re a really clever species, and we can see the train wreck ahead.”