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George Wells Beadle Papers

Identifier: 10044-MS

Scope and Contents

The collection highlights George W. Beadle's contribution to the field of genetics, which includes letters, manuscripts, reports, biographical and genealogical material, photographs, and awards.


  • 1908-1984



Collection is open for research. Researchers must apply for access in writing and by creating an Aeon account. Contact the archives for more information.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Caltech Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and, unless explicitly stated otherwise, is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

Biographical / Historical

George Wells Beadle was born on the family farm in Wahoo, Nebraska on October 22, 1903 to Chauncey (Colman) Elmer Beadle and Hattie Albro. "Beets" (the childhood nickname was to remain throughout his life) was 4 1/2 when his mother died and he, his older brother and younger sister Ruth were raised by his father and a series of housekeepers. The early years on the farm gave Beadle a life-long love of gardening. In 1908, the forty acre farm was designated as a model by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Educated in local schools, Beadle was prepared to become a farmer after he graduated from high school, especially since his older brother had been killed in an accident a few years earlier. However, Bess McDonald, a science teacher, convinced Beadle to go on to the University of Nebraska College of Agriculture. Since tuition was free and he could work to earn expenses, Beadle overcame his father's objections and enrolled, fully intending to return to the farm after receiving his degree.

College opened up a whole new world of possibilities; after dabbling in several fields he was drawn to the study of genetics. A summer job for Professor Franklin Keim, classifying genetic traits in a wheat hybrid population, increased that interest. Other assignments followed, all focusing on genetic studies.

After graduating in 1926, Beadle spent a year studying with Keim to earn a Master of Science degree in 1927 and then went on to Cornell University for his doctorate. There, he became part of Rollins A. Emerson's team that included Barbara McClintock, George Sprague and Marcus Rhoades. During his stay at Cornell, Beadle published 14 papers dealing with genetic investigations on maize, including ten on the mechanics of synapsis and cytokinesis in "sticky chromosome" mutants. He also married Marion Hill, a graduate student in botany; their son was born in 1931.

He received his Ph.D. in 1931 and was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship. This allowed him to join the Biology Division of the California Institute of Technology. At first, Beadle continued at Caltech with his work on maize in conjunction with R. A. Emerson's son, Sterling. Soon, however, Beadle was caught up in the excitement of the Drosophila research being conducted by T. H. Morgan and his associates. Following in the tradition of collaborative research which had begun in Morgan's "Fly Room" at Colombia, Beadle joined in on two important studies with Emerson and A. H. Sturtevant on the problem of genetic recombination in fruit flies.

In January of 1934 Boris Ephrussi came to Caltech from Paris, where Beadle and Ephrussi not only became research colleagues but close friends. After Ephrussi's return to France in the fall of 1934, Beadle arranged to spend the first half of 1935 in Paris to work with Ephrussi on an experimental method for doing developmental genetics in Drosophila. They conducted a number of experiments, picking out disks of embryological optical cells and injecting them into larvae, to find out whether chemicals in the body of the larva would affect the color of a transplanted eye. Using this tissue transplanting technique, Ephrussi and Beadle demonstrated that the Drosophila eye-color mutations vermillion and cinnabar are inactivations of genes controlling sequential steps in the synthesis of the brown component of eye pigment. Through these experiments, Beadle became convinced that the study of genetics needed to be approached through chemistry. The search for a method to accomplish this would occupy the next phase of Beadle's scientific career, and bring him his lasting scientific reputation.

Beadle left Caltech in 1937 to accept a position at Stanford. Due to his new found interest in connecting genetic and biochemical work, Beadle began working with a chemist, Edward L. Tatum. While listening to Tatum lecture one day in 1940, Beadle realized that their work might be made easier if they could identify mutant organisms to test their gene theory. For this they used Neurospora, a red bread mold. Through a series of experiments, Beadle and Tatum proved that genes transmit hereditary characteristics by controlling specific chemical reactions. This "one gene-one enzyme" hypothesis was Beadle's major contribution to fundamental genetics. For this work, Beadle shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1958 with Ed Tatum and Joshua Lederberg, Tatum's student.

In 1946 Beadle was invited back to Caltech to become head of the Division of Biology. He added a number of outstanding people, including Max Delbrück, Ray Owen, Robert Sinsheimer, Roger Sperry and Norman Horowitz to the talented group already in place. However, the demands of Beadle's administrative duties took their toll on his scientific work. Beadle proved to be an able administrator, admired by staff and students, and he continued to write and speak at major institutions. His research, however, was put on hold for the next 23 years. His personal life changed as well when he married Muriel Barnett, a writer, in 1953 after divorcing his first wife.

Beadle left Caltech in 1961 to become President of the University of Chicago; he held that post until 1968 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 65. He remained in Chicago taking up again the study of the origin of Maize, the problem he had considered when a doctoral candidate at Cornell.

Several years later, Beadle moved back to California and continued his research, lectures and writing until the onset of Alzheimer's Disease brought a halt to his activities. Beadle died on June 9, 1989.

George Beadle can best be summed up in the words he wrote to describe R. A. Emerson in 1974. Beadle called Emerson cordial and enthusiastic, with a zest for life, a hard worker who could discuss his scientific work informally and share his knowledge. Beadle likewise was generous in sharing his knowledge with students and colleagues. Norman Horowitz best recalled Beadle the administrator, who presided over the Biology Division with enthusiasm, intelligence and good humor. He was a popular and much admired boss and colleague.


15 linear feet (39 boxes)

Language of Materials



George Wells Beadle served as Chairman of the Biology Division at the California Institute of Technology (1946-1961); President of the University of Chicago (1961-1968); recipient of numerous prestigious awards including the Nobel Prize in Physiology for his studies in genetics (1958); member of councils and boards both in government and the private sector; awarded honorary degrees from many universities, including Yale (1947), Oxford (1959), Brown (1964) and The University of Michigan (1969). His papers include letters, manuscripts, reports, biographical and genealogical material, photographs; awards, and miscellaneous material.

Related Materials

The papers created by Beadle while serving as President of the University of Chicago can be accessed at The University of Chicago's Special Collections Resource Center.

Processing Information

Processed by David Valone and reorganized in 1992 by Carol Finerman.

In 1972, when the Biology Division collection was first processed, it was discovered the collection also included personal papers of Beadle written prior to 1946. The archivist made the decision to separate only those Beadle papers from the general collection, to place them at the beginning of the collection, and to call them "The Papers of George Beadle." Beadle material added in 1982 and 1985 formed two more record groups.

This major reorganization undertaken in 1992 pulls the Beadle papers together and makes them more accessible by dividing them into ten sections rather than in the alphabetic arrangement imposed by the Biology Division. With this 1992 reorganization, the Beadle collection now consists of the documents called "The Papers of George Beadle" in the 1972 collection, the two record groups added in 1982 and 1985, and appropriate documents transferred from the Biology Division collection. Documents were considered appropriate for transfer if they dealt solely with the work of Beadle, rather than with the work of the Biology Division, but it was often difficult to make this distinction in the case of correspondence, especially if the writer was a member of the Biology Division. This correspondence was often a mixture of personal notes, research comments and Biology Division discussions. Eventually, the archivist selected correspondence with only certain colleagues, among them Alfred H. Sturtevant, Linus Pauling, Max Delbrück and Norman Horowitz.

Guide to the George Wells Beadle Papers, 1908-1984
Carol Finerman & David A. Valone Machine-readable finding aid created by Gabriela A. Montoya
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Edition statement
Edited by Penelope Neder-Muro, 2020

Repository Details

Part of the California Institute of Technology Archives and Special Collections Repository

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