David E. Muller on Learning Russian
  David E. Muller     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jul 2004

Well I started German very early. I took it from a person by the name Madam Ludwig who was originally a refugee from Russia at the time of the revolution. And she was living there in Austin and agreed to give me German lessons, but of course she knew Russian too. So when , Vavilov came and offered this appointment for the Academy of Sciences they decided they would learn Russian. And one of the things they would do was have Madam Ludwig teach me Russian in addition to the German. But they also did lots of things themselves I remember. They got books and records. Berlitz records that would teach you Russian that you could play on your record player. And some of these I still remember. For example the first Russian sentence I learned that time was [“Jakachu Jablakaba”]. So as you know, I guess you can understand.

MP: I want an apple.

Yeah. My mother said, “Oh, that sounds like a sneeze.” But anyhow, we played those records interminably and tried to imitate the sounds and so on.

MP: Did your mother speak Russian?

Well she tried I think, but she wasn’t…she didn’t get languages easily. So the result was she really ended up not speaking either German or Russian. I remember once when we were in Russia, she would go into the store. She would say in a loud voice to the people there – [ yanya pon and myer pieretsky.] She’s say that over and over again. She knew how to say that. And then after she said that I remember she heard them say in the back, you know," она понимает все.." "She understands everything." [Laughter]. And what could she say. If she said no, I don’t understand everything then that would prove the contrary. You see, so that put her in a very bad position.

David E. Muller was born in 1924 in Austin, Texas. He is the son of Hermann J. Muller, who received a Nobel Prize in 1946 for his discovery of x-ray induced mutations in Drosophila melanogaster, and Jesse Jacobs Muller Offermann, a mathematician and first wife of H.J. Muller.

In the 1930’s, H.J. Muller left his laboratory at the University of Texas to work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. He then moved to Russia where he joined the Institute of Genetics and later the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh. During this time, David and his mother traveled to Germany and Russia to visit his father. After H.J. Muller’s return to the United States in 1940, David reunited with his father at the 1941 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Symposium for Quantitative Biology. Afterward, David returned to school at Caltech and H.J. Muller to his appointments at Amherst College (1940-1945) and Indiana University (1945-1967).

Following in his mother’s footsteps, David became a mathematician and began working with computers at the University of Illinois in 1952. There he designed the Muller C-element, which is a commonly used component in computers. He taught at the University of Illinois until 1992 at which time he retired.

In April 2005, David donated his collection of photographs and personal letters written primarily by his parents and Carlos Offermann (one of H.J. Muller’s top graduate students and David’s step-father) to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives. The letters were written between 1900 and 1945, although the bulk of the letters date from the early 1920’s when H.J. Muller took his first trip to Europe and the 1930’s when H.J. Muller was working in Germany, Russia, and the UK. These letters also cover the period of time when H.J. Muller made his Nobel-winning discoveries.

(Anthony Dellureficio, June, 2008)

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