Commemorating 70 Years of ASHG

From the President’s Desk: David L. Nelson, PhD
September 2018

David L. Nelson, 2018 President
David L. Nelson, 2018 President

This month, ASHG marks 70 vibrant years since the adoption of its charter in 1948. The Society was formed by a bold group of geneticists who sought to encourage improvement in human genetics research in the aftermath of a horrendous world war responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million people. Appallingly naïve and distorted ideas about human genetics were responsible for many of those deaths, having been used to justify war in Europe and Asia, the Holocaust, and additional genocides.

It was in this context that a group assembled at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Chicago in December 1947 to discuss forming a society to support human genetics research. They did so with trepidation, wondering if it was too early to re-focus public and scientific attention on human genetics, but acknowledging that proper research would be the best way to counter twisted ideas of human genetics used to justify eugenics, racism, and restrictions on immigration.

Seventy years have passed since the first meeting of ASHG in Washington, DC, in September 1948, but misuse of genetic findings remains a challenge for ASHG even today, despite our members’ impressive accumulation of knowledge about our species’ genomic composition, origins, and variation.

Founding President Hermann Joseph Muller, PhD

Genetics was already a fairly mature science when ASHG was founded. Beginning in 1910, efforts by Muller and colleagues in T.H. Morgan’s “fly room” at Columbia used Drosophila to define the gene by studying mutations. Over the next 25 years, they had identified chromosomes; developed extensive gene maps; and demonstrated the effects of mutagens, genetic modifiers, and chromosome rearrangements.

By 1948, it was clear that DNA was the genetic material, but its structure had not yet been defined, and the era of molecular biology led by bacterial and phage genetics was just beginning. Muller described the importance of a proper study of the genetics of humans in a foreword to the inaugural issue of The American Journal of Human Genetics the following fall:

“…until very recent years, the subject of human heredity was buffeted about by pressure groups from the extreme political right and left, who sought to impose their social preconceptions in the form of a spurious “nature-nurture controversy”, in which the methods of objective science were largely forgotten. The development of a more scientifically minded group of students of the subject has required the influence of basic genetics, working over many years. And in recent years, this sounder attitude has been reinforced by the lessons of the terrible mistakes made by the political protagonists of fascism and of communism, respectively, when they gained the power to translate their biological prejudices into action.(1)”

Supporting Research to Counter Misuse of Genetics

Like other founders, Muller was adamant that ASHG should work to remedy the misconceptions about human genetics that had led to societal misuses. During the 1930s, his interest in improving human society and humans themselves led him on a remarkable journey from Hitler’s Berlin to Stalin’s Moscow, where he debated Trofim Lysenko and saw first-hand the results that twisted ideas in genetics can produce, in both suppressing research and imposing harmful ideas. He barely escaped the purges in the Soviet Union that led to the deaths of many of his fellow geneticists.

Back in the post-war United States with a newly awarded Nobel Prize, Muller recognized that his hopelessly romantic notions of perfecting man and society were misplaced and determined that supporting human genetics research was the best way to counter misuse of genetic findings. The lessons from Muller’s journey echo today: Information collected without preconceptions is vital in the face of social and political forces that seek to bend the data to their purposes, and our field of human genetics is especially attractive to those forces.

New Research Avenues and Applications

Today, human genetics benefits from abundantly expanding datasets that help us investigate questions that ASHG’s founders could only dream about answering. We have come to know our species in exquisite detail, and we are learning about our progenitor species and the complicated paths taken by modern humans to arrive at today’s populations. We have identified many of the mutations that cause Mendelian disorders and are rapidly dissecting the genetic influences of more complex disease along with aspects of normal variation. Genetic therapies are finally realizing their potential and appear to be on their way to fully blossoming. Progress in recent years is simply astonishing!

Through these 70 years, ASHG has been the nexus for advances in human genetics. The Society has grown immensely during that time and has become much more international in scope. It has supported dissemination of knowledge and collaboration through its meetings, journal, and educational programs. As the field has grown and evolved, ASHG has fostered the development of new societies to tackle specific needs, and we have seen an explosion of interest in computational methods for analyzing genome data in disease and normal variation. Our members are involved in many other branches of medical and scientific endeavor, underscoring the relevance of genetic methods and findings to numerous fields.

ASHG has been a champion in supporting policy that recognizes the importance of individuals’ genetic privacy while encouraging participation in research, by advocating for the 2008 passage and continued protection of the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act. Since its founding, the Society has provided a forum for the proactive discussion of thorny questions arising from research in human genetics. Reaching the public at large is a huge challenge, but one that we continue to work on through helping our members and educators with the explosion of knowledge in human genetics and sponsoring efforts at the high school level through our very successful DNA Day Essay Contest.

As we have seen in recent years, much work remains to engage and inform our fellow humans about the diverse wonders of our species and the contributions of our individual genomes. Please join me in recommitting to sharing our discoveries and their meaning with the world through ASHG.

1. Muller, H.J., Progress and Prospects in Human Genetics, A Preface to this Journal. (1949) Amer J Hum Genet 1:1-18.

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