Tom Eblen

Ark doesn’t float your boat? Honor Kentucky’s greatest scientist on his 150th

The Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) was born in Lexington.
The Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) was born in Lexington. UK Special Collections

If you worry the Creation Museum and its new Noah’s Ark theme park will cause outsiders to think Kentuckians are a bunch of anti-science rubes, at least take comfort in this: Lexington was home to perhaps America’s greatest evolutionary biologist.

Sept. 25 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Hunt Morgan, who won a Nobel Prize in 1933 for pioneering research that is the foundation of much modern biology and genetics.

But aside from the University of Kentucky’s biology department, almost nobody here seems interested in marking the sesquicentennial of Kentucky’s greatest scientist.

Morgan, who died in 1945, remains world-famous. But he has always been overshadowed in Lexington by his uncle, Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a controversial cavalry raider whose statue has stood on the old courthouse lawn since 1911.

In December 2014, Tom Kimmerer, a local scientist and author, called a public meeting at Thomas Hunt Morgan’s boyhood home on North Broadway, now the headquarters of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. Kimmerer wanted to inspire local schools and civic groups to honor the biologist this year.

Kimmerer said there was a lot of initial interest, then nothing happened. At least nothing not related to a series of events being planned by UK’s biology department.

For the past seven years, the department has brought in a distinguished scientist to give the Thomas Hunt Morgan Lecture. This year’s speaker on Oct. 3 will be Sean B. Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin.

Carroll, 55, is the author of six popular books about science, including his most recent: The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters (Princeton University Press, $25.)

“He’s a highly sought-after speaker,” said Vincent Cassone, the biology department chair. “We think a lot of people — not just scientists — will want to hear him.”

Garland Allen, who wrote the 1979 biography Thomas Hunt Morgan: The Man and His Science, will speak at UK on Oct. 13. Cassone said the university also is trying to arrange a Lexington screening of The Fly Room, a 2014 movie about the genetics research with fruit flies in Morgan’s lab at Columbia University in New York.

The celebration will begin Oct. 1 with an open house featuring the work of biology graduate students at UK’s new Academic Science Building, which is now under construction and will replace the Thomas Hunt Morgan Biological Sciences Building.

Cassone said the department also is working on other public events this fall to introduce people to the legacy of Morgan, who earned his bachelor of science degree from UK in 1886 and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1890.

UK’s plans are commendable, but what Lexington needs is a more permanent memorial to Morgan. He would be an ideal namesake for the new public high school being built on Winchester Road. Can you think of a better example of what a Lexington student can achieve through academics?

Morgan isn’t UK’s only contribution to refuting the pseudo-science of creationism. Nearly a century ago, as now, creationism was enjoying a wave of popularity among Christians who found science incompatible with their narrow interpretation of Scripture.

One result was a bill introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly in 1922 that would have outlawed teaching the evolution of man in public schools and universities. The bill was vigorously opposed by UK President Frank McVey and Arthur McQuiston Miller, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and UK’s first football coach.

The bill was narrowly defeated, but similar legislation passed in Tennessee and several other states. The Tennessee law became famous in 1925, when the American Civil Liberties Union enlisted one of Miller’s former UK students, John T. Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, Tenn., to challenge the law in court.

The “Scopes monkey trial” became a national sensation that played a big role in turning public opinion away from anti-science for decades. Scopes was found guilty, but his conviction was overturned two years later. The Tennessee law remained on the books until 1967, but was widely ignored.

While Scopes remains a household name, few people remember he was a UK graduate. It seems to me that a good thing to put in front of UK’s new Academic Science Building would be an historical marker honoring the roles Scopes, Miller and McVey played in defending academic freedom.

A group of protesters and supporters clashed outside the Ark Encounter in Northern Kentucky as it opened to the public Thursday.