Edward B. Lewis

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Edward Butts Lewis was a well-known scientist who specialized in the genetics of common fruit flies (Drosophila melanosgaster). His father, a watchmaker and jeweler, lost his work at the outset of the Great Depression, and he lived his boyhood and youth in poverty. It couldn’t take away his vigor, humor, or curiosity, though. While still in school, he began working with Drosophila. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate in genetics from Caltech. He also devised the ‘cis-trans’ test during this time, which is still taught in introductory undergraduate biology classes. However, he could only begin his actual research work after returning to Caltech after serving in the military for a short time. He primarily focused on genetics, for which he received numerous prizes, including the Nobel Prize. His research into the impact of radiation on human health was also crucial. He fought to prove that even low levels of radiation are harmful to one’s health. Despite his diminutive stature, he possessed exceptional human qualities and was highly regarded for his modesty, personal integrity, and brilliance.

Childhood and Adolescence

Edward Butts Lewis was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on May 20, 1918. His father, Edward Butts Lewis, worked as a watchmaker-jeweler in a jewelry store. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, he lost his work, and his family faced severe financial trouble.

Despite this, Edward’s mother, Laura Mary Lewis (née Histed), instilled in her children a strong desire to learn. James Lewis, his sole sibling, was five and a half years his senior. Mary Louise Lewis, their other sister, died the night before James was born.

Elmer L. Meyers Junior/Senior High School was where Edward received his early education. He developed an interest in biology while studying there, with a particular fascination for toads and snakes. His mother once discovered a rattlesnake in his cabinet, which he had kept there since he hadn’t built a terrarium for it yet.

During this time, he also visited the Osterhout Public Library in Wilkes-Barre on a regular basis. In 1933/1934, he saw an advertisement in the Science Magazine for fruit flies (Drosophila melanosgaster) and purchased a big quantity of them for the school’s biology club.

Following that, Lewis and his classmate Edward Novitski began reproducing them in the school laboratory, and once fresh flies hatched, they examined them under a microscope for uncommon mutants. He was unwittingly launched into his future career as a result of the incident.

Edward, on the other hand, was a gifted flutist. He began playing the flute when he was ten years old, and he was a frequent member of both the school orchestra and the Wilkes-Barre Symphony.

He enrolled at Bucknell University on a music scholarship after graduating from high school in 1935, but transferred to the University of Minnesota the following year, mostly because its tuition was far less expensive. He continued his biostatistics and genetics undergraduate studies here.

During this time, Edward was helped financially by his brother James, whom he adored much. Professor of Genetics Clarence P. Oliver also granted him a desk in his lab and the opportunity to pursue his Drosophila research, which he began in school.

Edward Lewis received his bachelor’s degree in biostatistics in 1939 and began his doctoral studies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He worked under the supervision of Alfred Sturtevant, a well-known Drosophila expert at the time. His research looked into how the location of genes on chromosomes influences their function.

Lewis received his doctorate in genetics in 1942. ‘A genetic and cytological investigation of a tandem duplication and its contained loci in Drosophila melanogaster,’ was the title of his thesis. During this time, he also developed the ‘cis-trans’ test, which is a gene function test. It laid the groundwork for his subsequent discoveries.

Lewis then enlisted as a cadet in the United States Army Air Corps’ meteorology training program, earning his M.S. in meteorology in 1943. Following that, he spent World War II as a meteorologist and oceanographer in the United States Air Force.

Career of Edward B. Lewis

Edward Lewis joined California Institute of Technology as a Biology Division instructor after being discharged from the military in 1946. He was given the duty of administering the vast Caltech Drosophila Stock Center the same year, and he began working with them.

He was a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow at the University of Cambridge from 1947 to 1948. When he returned to the United States, he returned to Caltech as an Assistant Professor of Biology, where he served from 1948 to 1949.

In 1949, he was promoted to Associate Professor of Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. He quickly determined that the bithorax mutants were essentially a collection of genes. He eventually coined the term “bithorax gene complex” to describe them.

In 1951, he proposed that the bithorax gene cluster acted as a body plan regulator, controlling the development of specific body segments. He also came to the conclusion that mutations in this region cause one segment of the body to become a duplicate of the segment next to it.

Lewis was promoted to full professor of biology in 1956 and remained there until 1966. Meanwhile, he began researching the impact of nuclear testing, X-rays, and other forms of radiation on human health in the mid-1950s.
He looked through the medical records of survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as radiologists and patients who had been exposed to X-rays, for this project. On this, he collaborated with Drosophila. Finally, in 1957, he released ‘Leukemia and Ionizing Radiation,’ a detailed paper on the subject.

He not only computed the increased risk of leukemia from radiation in this report, but he also concluded that “radiation health dangers had been overestimated.” Nuclear scientists disputed his findings, claiming that low levels of radiation were harmless. In the end, his arguments won out.

Lewis returned to his genetics research soon after. He discovered the link between the organization of genes on the chromosome and certain body segments in Drosophila in 1964. Much later, it was discovered that a similar genetic pattern was found in a variety of animal species.

Lewis was named the Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Biology at Caltech in 1966, and he held the position until 1988. He was also a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Genetics, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, from 1975 to 1976.

He discovered the’master control’ gene clusters, which are critical for early embryonic development, in 1982. He then went on to find the comparable genes in humans.

Lewis left regular work in 1988 and was named Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at the same institute. He continued to work with Drosophila after that, and a month before his death, he submitted his final manuscript for publication.

Major Projects of Edward B. Lewis

Edward B. Lewis is best known for discovering and elucidating the function of the Drosophila Bithorax gene complex. He also discovered that genes are ordered in the same order as their corresponding body segments, according to the colinearity principle.

The first set of genes regulates the functions of the head and thorax, the middle set regulates the functions of the belly, and the last set regulates the functions of the posterior portion, according to him. He also mentioned that genetic roles might overlap, which he demonstrated by creating a mutant fly with four wings.

His work with Drosophila was crucial in the development of developmental genetics. It also aided scientists in their understanding of the causes of various abnormalities in humans and higher animals.

Achievements & Awards

For his “discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development,” Edward B. Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1995. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric F. Wieschaus, who worked on the same problem independently, shared the prize.

The Thomas Hunt Morgan Medal (1983), the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1991), and the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize were among his other important honors (1992).

He was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London in 1989. He was also a member of a number of other societies both at home and abroad, including the National Academy of Sciences, the Genetics Society of America, and the American Philosophical Society, among others.

Personal History and Legacy

Edward Lewis met Pamela Harrah in 1946. She was a Stanford graduate who accepted George W. Beadle’s invitation to join Caltech as the stock keeper of the Caltech Drosophila Stock Center. She was also a talented artist, and her paintings were always full of insects.

Edward and Pamela married a few months after meeting and were together until Edward’s death. Hugh, Glenn, and Keith were their three sons. Glen was one of them who died. Hugh is now a Bellingham attorney, while Keith is a Berkeley biology research assistant.
On July 21, 2004, Edward B. Lewis died of prostate cancer.

Estimated net worth

The estimated net worth of Edward B. Lewis is unknown.


His full name was supposed to be Edward Butts Lewis Junior since his father’s name was also Edward Butts Lewis. However, his parents failed to add Junior to the birth certificate form, therefore he was also known as Edward Butts Lewis.