Chromosomes and Conservation: Oak Ridge's Liane Russell's life of leadership

Grant Robinson # State

Oak Ridge — Liane Russell's greatest contributions to society depend on who you ask.

Among scientist, she's a world renown geneticist, but for those who love the outdoors, her conservation efforts helped save one of the last free-flowing river systems in the Eastern United States.

Liane and her husband Bill Russell moved to Oak Ridge in 1947 to study the genetic impacts of radiation.

"The big pressure then from the Atomic Energy Commission was to investigate the hereditary effects of radiation because the country had suffered from some degree of the fallout from atomic weapons testing, and people were quite worried about what the affects might be not only on themselves, but on their children,"
Russel said.

The Russells conducted their research on mice. Until that point, most genetic research had been conducted on organisms less similar to humans. Their program garnered the nickname "The Mouse House."

Their most notable discovery identified the Y chromosome as the determining factor in male organisms and that only one X chromosome is active in females.

The breakthrough wasn't even the goal of the research.

"The purpose of our program was to get some kind of quantitative information on the hazards or possible hazards of radiation, so this was not in that line of work,"
Russell said.

The Russells grew their "Mouse House" into the one of the largest mouse research facilities in the world. Liane retired in 2002. Bill died the following year.

Despite garnering major scientific awards, some of the Russells most proud contributions came outside of the lab.

In June of 1965, a fellow scientist took the Russells to his favorite spot on the Obed River. The multi-day canoe trip changed their lives.

"He wasn't going to tell anyone about it because he didn't want it to be over run or spoiled by other people, but after he got to know us he decided that we would be alright people to show it,"
Russell said.

Canoers paddle down the Obed River. Original photograph by Bill Russell.

The Russells fell in love with the Obed, but a proposed TVA dam threatened to flood the gorge.

"In December there was a little item in the paper saying that TVA was about to dam it. So we got very upset by that and it was just before Christmas,"
Russell said.
"I hid the paper from Bill so it wouldn't spoil his Christmas."

A newsclipping from the Knoxville News Sentinel.Robinson, Grant

The Russells bought close to 170 acres around the river and created what later became Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning to preserve the river.

After a decade of fighting to protect the gorge, Congress designated the Obed and two tributaries as a Wild and Scenic River and put the river under the protection of the National Park Service.

Now 95 years old, Russell continues to stay engaged in scientific and environmental affairs. Climate change is her main emphasis, along with protecting uninhibited scientific research.

"I think we need to be very careful to keep things beautiful,"
Russel said.

Barbara _Bombay
John and Barbara Bombay fish in the Obed River in 1965. Original photograph by Bill Russell.