David E. Muller on Visiting Leningrad and Learning about Parents' Divorce
  David E. Muller     Biography    
Recorded: 15 Jul 2004

Well, yeah we went – where was it? I think it was from Hamburg and we drove up the Baltic Sea into Leningrad. I remember spending the night on the boat. This was a period that I remember pretty well because my parents told me at that time that they were going to get a divorce. And I spent the whole night crying as a result of that.

They came to me and told me they were planning to get a divorce. So I was just terribly shocked by this. I had something wrong with my eye, too. It was all encrusted. So I had two.

Then the next morning I remember we went past and you could see the coast of Finland in the distance. We went to Kronstadt, you know, the naval base and so on. And landed in Leningrad.

He was there too – I guess that the car was on the boat then too. They brought the car with them. The car had to be re-outfitted according to Russian law. The horn had the wrong sound, for example. It had to be changed so as to make the right horn sound. The horn sound was “AH-WHOO-AH”. That was the correct sound. And we said, Oh, that’s saying VOLUTA. And then the turn signals which were little arms that stuck out from the sides had to be installed. They weren’t installed in American cars at that time. There were some other things that had to be done.

It’s funny because I should have known that this was likely to happen just from observation, you see? I should have known that. But when they actually told me, it just hit me and I couldn’t stop crying. I remember that very distinctly.

Well, it wasn’t really an issue at that time because they weren’t going to get a divorce right away, you see. In fact, my mother didn’t want to get a divorce in the Soviet Union because she was afraid that there women would not be treated as well as they would be in the United States if they got a divorce. She was determined that that wasn’t going to happen. So we were there, but their plan for the future was that they would get a divorce and that was what I understood.

Yeah, you see, when we got to Leningrad, the apartment wasn’t ready. Everything was delayed. Not only wasn’t it ready, but it wasn’t nearly ready. So we lived for about 4 months in a hotel before we got into the apartment which was fine once we got in, but up until that time, I guess we had separate rooms in the hotel. I remember that I had my own bedroom there. So that was the way it worked out.

Then later when they had the apartment ready and that was near the laboratory, and we, all four of us moved into that apartment and lived there. So that was the setup. As far as the divorce was concerned, there’s a lot of background to that I don’t have time to give. But you see, my mother was very worried about getting a divorce in the Soviet Union. So she had arranged then to go back to the United States without telling essentially anybody. She waited until my father took this trip with Vavilov through parts of the Soviet Union. You know, eastern parts, Kazakhstan . I don’t know how far East they got. But anyhow it was the Eastern part of Russia. I do know how far but I forget now exactly what places they went to. But it was a long trip. It was during the summer of ’34 and she then arranged to leave the country and I wanted to go with her at that time. I guess she had this pretext that her father was sick or something so that people would accept it. But anyhow my father thought that she was taking a vacation in maybe the Crimea, the Caucasus, the south, I don’t know. So he wrote to her there. She took a boat with me to London and then another boat across to New York. So I landed in New York in the summer of 1934.

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)

Left         Right