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About Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky
A prominent geneticist and evolutionary biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky was a central figure in the field of evolutionary biology for his work in shaping the unifying modern evolutionary synthesis.
Dobzhansky was born on January 24, 1900 in Ukraine (then part of Imperial Russia). An only child, his father Grigory Dobzhansky was a mathematics teacher, and his mother was Sophia Voinarsky. In 1910 the family moved to Kiev, Ukraine.
While in high school, Dobzhansky collected butterflies and decided to become a biologist. In 1915, he met Victor Luchnik who convinced him to specialize in beetles instead. Dobzhansky attended the University of Kiev between 1917 and 1921, where he then studied until 1924. He then moved to Leningrad, Russia, to study under Yuri Filipchenko, where a Drosophila melanogaster lab had been established.
On August 8, 1924, Dobzhansky married geneticist Natalia "Natasha" Sivertzeva who was working with I. I. Schmalhausen in Kiev, Ukrainian SSR. The Dobzhanskys had one daughter, Sophie, who later married the American archaeologist and anthropologist Michael D. Coe.
In 1927, Dobzhansky emigrated to the United States on a scholarship from International Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation arriving in New York on December 27. He worked with Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University, who had pioneered the use of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) in genetics experiments. He followed Morgan to the California Institute of Technology from 1930 to 1940. Dobzhansky is credited for having studied the fruit fly in population cages, and discovered that close regional varieties of flies were more similar to each other genetically than to flies from other regions.
In 1937 he published one of the major works of the modern evolutionary synthesis, the synthesis of evolutionary biology with genetics, entitled Genetics and the Origin of Species, which amongst other things defined evolution as "a change in the frequency of an allele within a gene pool". Dobzhansky's work was instrumental in spreading the idea that it is through mutations in genes that natural selection takes place. Also in 1937, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. During this time he had a very public falling out with one of his Drosophila collaborators, Alfred Sturtevant, based primarily in professional competition.
In 1941 Dobzhansky was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. He returned to Columbia University from 1940 to 1962. He was one of the signatories of the 1950 UNESCO statement The Race Question. He then moved to the Rockefeller Institute (shortly to become Rockefeller University) until his retirement in 1971. In 1972 he was elected the first president of the BGA (Behavior Genetics Association) and was recognised by the society for his role in behavior genetics and the founding of the society by the creation of the Dobzhansky Award (for a lifetime of outstanding scholarship in behavior genetics).
Dobzhansky's wife Natasha died of coronary thrombosis on February 22, 1969. Earlier, on June 1, 1968, Theodosius had been diagnosed with lymphocytic leukemia (a chronic form of leukemia), and had been given a few months to a few years to live. He retired in 1971, moving to the University of California, Davis where his student Francisco Jose Ayala had been made assistant professor, and where he continued working as an emeritus professor. He published one of his most famous essays "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" at this time.
By 1975, his leukemia had become more severe, and on November 11 he travelled to San Jacinto, California for treatment and care. He died (of heart failure) on December 18. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Californian wilderness.
- 1964 - National Medal of Science
- 1972 - Franklin Medal