Love that Hormesis to Pieces

Hermann Joseph Muller was an American biologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1946, for Physiology or Medicine, for his work on fruit fly genetics. In his Nobel Prize speech, Muller opined that there was no threshold dose for radiation-induced mutagenesis. Muller’s speech became a locus of support for what later became known as the “linear no threshold” (LNT) theory of carcinogenesis.

Muller was an ardent eugenicist, although of the communist, not the Nazi, variety.1 After 1932, Muller’s political enthusiasms took him to the Soviet Union, where Muller blithely ignored murderous purges and famines, in order to pursue his scientific interests for the greater glory of the Proletarian Dicatorship.2 Muller became enamored of a People’s eugenics program. On May 5, 1936, Muller wrote to “Comrade Stalin,” “[a]s a scientist with confidence in the ultimate Bolshevik triumph throughout all possible spheres of human endeavor,” to offer the brutal dictator “a matter of vital importance arising out of my own science – biology, and, in particular, genetics.”3

Comrade Stalin was underwhelmed by Muller’s offer, and threw his lot in with Trofim Lysenko. A disheartened Muller managed to extricate himself from the Soviet fatherland, but not so much from its politics and ideology4. After returning to the United States, he remained active in noteworthy liberal and progressive political activities. Alas, he also seemed to remain a Communist fellow traveler, who found time to criticize only the Soviet embrace of Lysenkoism and its treatment of dissident geneticists (such as himself), with nary a mention of Ukrainian farmers, political dissidents, or the Soviet subjugation of eastern and central Europe.5

In retreating from his Soviet homeland, Muller did not abandon his eugenic vision for the United States. In 1966, Muller urged the immediate establishment of sperm banks for “outstanding men,” such as himself, to make deposits for use in artificial insemination6


Back in a 1976, George E. P. Box outlined his notion that all models are wrong even though some may be useful7. The LNT model, as devised by Muller and embraced by regulatory agencies around the world, has long since lost its usefulness in describing and predicting biological phenomena. LNT is scientific in the sense that it is testable and falsifiable; LNT has been tested and falsified. Muller’s model ignores relevant biological processes of tolerance, defense, and adaptation8

The resilience of the LNT seems to be due to the advocacy of scientists and regulators who find the simplistic LNT model to be useful in ensuring regulation of, and compensation for, low-dose exposures. The perpetual machine litigation created with asbestos comes to mind. Other “political scientists” come to mind as well. Theory and data are often in tension, but at the end of any debate, scientists are obligated to “save the phenomena.” Fortunately, there are scientists who are challenging the dominance of the LNT model, and who are pointing out where the model just does not fit the data9.

In the United States, Muller’s theories were subjected to some real-world tests. In May 1947, Muller warned of the possible evolution of evil monsters born to Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the basis of his assessment that the atomic bombs had produced countless mutants. Later that year, however, Austin Brues, director of the Argonne National Laboraty, published his findings of children born to Hiroshima survivors, who had no more mutations than baseline expectation10.

Notwithstanding the shaky evidentiary foundations of Muller’s views, his prestige as a Nobel laureate encouraged the adoption and promotion of the LNT model by the National Academy of Sciences’ Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR) I Genetics Panel. Edward J. Calabrese, a prominent toxicologist in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts, has taken pains, on multiple occasions, to trace the genealogy of this error. His most recent, and most succinct effort, is a worthwhile read for policy makers, judges, and lawyers who want to understand the historical dimension of the LNT model11. A fuller bibliography is set out as an appendix to this post.


1 Herman Joseph Muller, Out of the Night – a Biologist’s View of the Future (1935).

2 Elof Alex Carlson, Genes, Radiation, and Society: The Life and Work of H.J. Muller (1981).

3 John Glad, “Hermann J. Muller’s 1936 Letter to Stalin,” 43 The Mankind Quarterly 305 (2003).

4 See, e.g., Peter J. Kuznick, Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930’s America 121 (1987).

5 Hermann J. Muller, “The Crushing of Genetics in the USSR,” 4 Bull. Atomic Scientists 369 (1948). Some have attempted to protect Muller’s conduct by arguing that he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he was critical of Soviet restrictions on secondary education. See Thomas D. Clark, Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer 310 (1977). Given Muller’s privileged position to observe first hand what had happened to Ukrainian farmers and others, this coming forward on Soviet education seems feeble indeed.

6 See Sperm Banks Urged by Nobel Laureate,” N.Y. Times (Sept. 13, 1966).

7 See George E. P. Box, “Science and Statistics,” 71 J. Am. Stat. Ass’ 791 (1976); George E. P. Box, “Robustness in the strategy of scientific model building,” in R. L. Launer & G.N. Wilkinson, Robustness in Statistics at 201–236 (1979); George E. P. Box & Norman Draper, Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces at 74 (1987) (“Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.”).

8 See, e.g., Adam D. Thomas, Gareth J. S. Jenkins, Bernd Kaina, Owen G. Bodger, Karl-Heinz Tomaszowski, Paul D. Lewis, Shareen H. Doak, and George E. Johnson, “Influence of DNA Repair on Nonlinear Dose-Responses for Mutation,” 132 Toxicol. Sci. 87 (2013).

9 See, e.g., Bill Sacks & Jeffry A. Siegel, “Preserving the Anti-Scientific Linear No-Threshold Myth: Authority, Agnosticism, Transparency, and the Standard of Care,” 15 Dose-Response: An Internat’l J. 1 (2017); Charles L. Sanders, Radiobiology and Radiation Hormesis: New Evidence and its Implications for Medicine and Society (2017).

10 William Widder, “Probe Effects of Atom Bomb: Study Betrays No Evidence of Mutations,” Greensburg Daily News (Greensburg, Indiana) at 22 (Mon, Nov. 24, 1947).

11 Edward J.Calabrese, “The Mistaken Birth and Adoption of the LNT: An Abridged Version,” 15 Dose-Response: An Internat’l J. (2017).


Edward J.Calabrese & Linda A. Baldwin, “Chemical hormesis: its historical foundations as a biological hypothesis,” 19 Human & Experimental Toxicol. 2 (2000)

Edward J. Calabrese and Linda A. Baldwin, “Hormesis: U-shaped dose responses and their centrality in toxicology,” 22 Trends Pharmacol. Sci. 285 (2001)

Edward J.Calabrese, “Hormesis: a revolution in toxicology, risk assessment and medicine: Re-framing the dose–response relationship,” 5 Eur. Mol. Bio. Org. Reports S37 (2004)

Edward J. Calabrese & Robyn Blain, “The occurrence of hormetic dose responses in the toxicological literature, the hormesis database: an overview,” 202 Toxicol. & Applied Pharmacol. 289 (2005);

Edward J. Calabrese, “Pain and U-shaped dose responses: occurrence, mechanisms and clinical Implications,” 38 Crit. Rev. Toxicol. 579 (2008)

Edward J. Calabrese, “Neuroscience and hormesis: overview and general findings,” 38 Crit. Rev. Toxicol. 249 (2008)

Edward J. Calabrese, “Linear No Threshold (LNT) – The New Homeopathy,” 31 Envt’l Toxicol. & Chem. 2723 (2012)

Edward J. Calabrese, “Muller’s Nobel Prize Lecture: When Ideology Prevailed over Science,” 126 Toxicol. Sci. 1 (2012)

Edward J. Calabrese, “How the U.S. National Academy of Sciences misled the world community on cancer risk assessment: new findings challenge historical foundations of the linear dose response, 87 Arch. Toxicol. 2063 (2013)

Edward J. Calabrese, “On the origins of the linear no-threshold (LNT) dogma by means of untruths, artful dodges and blind faith,” 142 Envt’l Research 432 (2015)

Edward J. Calabrese, “An abuse of risk assessment: how regulatory agencies improperly adopted LNT for cancer risk assessment,” 89 Arch. Toxicol. 647 (2015)

Edward J. Calabrese, “LNTgate: How scientific misconduct by the U.S. NAS led to governments adopting LNT for cancer risk assessment,” 148 Envt’l Research 535 148 (2016)

Edward J. Calabrese, “The threshold vs LNT showdown: Dose rate findings exposed flaws in the LNT model part 1. The Russell-Muller debate,” 154 Envt’l Res. 435 (2017)

Edward J. Calabrese, “The threshold vs LNT showdown: Dose rate findings exposed flaws in the LNT model part 2. How a mistake led BEIR I to adopt LNT,” 154 Envt’l Res. 452 (2017)

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