You may not be familiar with Liane B. Russell — who was known to all as Lee — but this incredible Jewish mom and Nazi refugee has likely touched your life in a very meaningful way: She helped make pregnancy safer for women all around the world.
A geneticist, Lee — who died on July 20 at age 95 — helped determine that x-ray radiation can have serious adverse effects on fetuses.
Lee was born Liane Brauch to a well-to-do Jewish family in Vienna. Up until the age of 14, she lived an ideal life — her father was a successful chemist; her mother, a voice teacher. Then came the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany, which transformed Austria into a hostile and perilous environment for Jews.
The Brauchs were able to make a deal — Russell’s father gave up his business and home in exchange for being able to leave for London. The family later immigrated to New York.
The Brauchs wanted their daughters to receive an education, believing that women are capable of the same scholarly achievements as men. (Hear, hear!) Lee originally wanted to be a doctor, but that all changed when she attended a summer program ran by her future husband, zoologist Billl L. Russell, while she was a student at Hunter College. She said her fascination started when she first saw a fertilized mouse egg.
Lee later got her masters at the University of Chicago, attending the same program her husband attended 13 years prior.
Together, the Russells built the “mouse house” in Oak Ridge, Tenn., one of the biggest mice labs in the world, which held more than 200,000 mice. The lab was the former home of the part of the Manhattan Project, which helped develop the United States’ first atomic bomb.
After the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and with the looming Cold War, Lee noted that there was pressure from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission “to investigate the hereditary effects of radiation because the country had suffered from some degree of the fallout from atomic weapons testing.” And, indeed, the Russells did discover that radiation caused birth defects, especially when embryos are exposed to it during the early stages of development.
Thanks to their discovery, we now know to avoid doing x-rays on pregnant women — that’s why you’re always asked if you’re pregnant or planning to be whenever you get an x-ray.
But couple also made other amazing discoveries. Namely, Lee discovered that mice with a Y chromosome were male, and that female mice only had one X chromosome.
Her groundbreaking achievements earned her many awards. In 1973 she was the first woman to receive the internationally awarded Roentgen Medal. She also won one of the highest honors of the Department of Energy, the Enrico Fermi Award, in 1994 — and she remains one of the few women to have garnered the prestigious award, including Mildred Dresselhaus, the legendary Jewish scientist dubbed as the “queen of carbon.”
In her spare time, Russell was an avid conservationist and environmental activist. In June of 1965, the Russells went on a paddling trip that changed their life. They fell in love with Tennesse’s Obed River, and when they learned a dam was supposed to be built on the site, the couple fought against its construction, purchasing around 170 acres surrounding the river.
For two decades, they fought to make the river a designated National Wild and Scenic River, under the protections and the care of the National Park Service, and succeeded.
The couple had two kids. Lee was also the stepmother of William’s three children from a previous marriage, and had four grandchildren.
What an inspiration! May her memory be for a blessing.