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Outspoken Geneticist H. Bentley Glass Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page B06

H. Bentley Glass, 98, who died of pneumonia Jan. 16 at a hospital in Boulder, Colo., was a renowned biologist and geneticist. His controversial, often dire and eloquent scientific predictions made him a notable figure long after he had retired.

His chief concerns included the genetic effects of nuclear radiation, a major topic during Cold War atomic testing; how genetic characteristics spread among races; and how future technology would make possible the prenatal identification of physical and mental defects in children.

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Dr. Glass was a peripatetic figure in the 1950s and 1960s, advising the federal government, serving in ranking positions on professional boards and bodies, traveling the world on scientific exchanges, helping edit scientific texts and writing hundreds of articles for scientific and popular audiences.

Long based at Johns Hopkins University, he was lured in 1965 to the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The state school was then gaining a reputation as an "Instant Cal Tech" with hires of Nobel Prize-winning scientists and literary giants such as Philip Roth.

In the late 1960s, his jobs as Stony Brook's academic vice president and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science provided him high visibility. Perhaps none of his previous speeches seemed to alarm the public as much as those he made during this period.

He forecast the likely proliferation of genetic clinics during the next three decades and warned that couples would be forced to take tests to ensure against hereditary defects in their future children. In cases where parents might produce limbless or mentally handicapped children, "avoidance of parenthood ought to be mandatory," he said.

He envisioned a future where restrictive tax penalties existed for those who did not comply with rules against having a limited number of children. He noted forced abortions for those who were "mentally defective" as well as prenatal adoption and frozen embryos that would be implanted within the mother.

"No parents will in that future time have a right to burden society with a malformed or a mentally incompetent child," he concluded.

This last statement in particular became much quoted over the decades in the abortion rights debate.

Hiram Bentley Glass was born in China on Jan. 17, 1906. He said his parents, Baptist missionaries from Texas, had liberal social values that were impressed on him. At a young age, he became interested in evolution and insects.

He was a graduate of Baylor University in Texas and received a doctorate in genetics from the University of Texas. While doing postdoctoral work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, he saw esteemed Jewish scientists purged during the Nazi rise. It led him to believe that academic and civil freedoms were easily endangered.

After teaching at Goucher College in Baltimore, he joined Johns Hopkins in 1948 and served as a biology professor there until 1965.

At Hopkins, he and colleague C.C. Li began to formulate theories on genetic drift, the frequency of genetic trait changes within a population. He later used this theory to show that at least a quarter of the gene pool for those classified as black came from white ancestry.

As a Baltimore school board commissioner in the 1950s, he pressed for compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed public school segregation. He wrote in his regular Baltimore Sun science column that those who believe in inherent racial differences do not consider that "differences in opportunity also exist."

While serving on the Atomic Energy Commission's advisory committee on biology and medicine, he announced that radioactivity increases the probability of genetic mutations. He also warned that in a nuclear catastrophe, the winner would be the cockroach, "a venerable and hardy species [that] will take over the habitats of the foolish humans, and compete only with other insects or bacteria."

An avowed civilian libertarian, he refused in 1960 an appointment to Maryland's new Radiation Control Advisory Board because of a state requirement to sign a loyalty oath against communism. He labeled the affidavit an affront to constitutional freedoms, then wrote to Gov. J. Millard Tawes that the so-called Ober Act oath was a waste of taxpayers' money and had not led to the prosecution of one communist in its 11-year history.

"To be forced to swear that one is not disloyal or subversive to one's country is like being forced to swear that one is not disloyal in marriage," he wrote. "For that, the loyal need no oath; the disloyal swear anyway."

He did not get the job, but neither did his stance harm his career.

He was president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, among other groups, and edited several periodicals, including the Quarterly Review of Biology. He was national president of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society in the late 1960s.

His books included "Genes and the Man" (1943) and "Science and Liberal Education" (1960).

He once said his range of interests served one goal: "educating laymen in the questing spirit of science and reminding science of its social responsibility."

His wife of 59 years, Suzanne Smith Glass, died in 1993. A son, Alan Glass, died in 1991.

Survivors include a daughter, Lois Edgar of Boulder; a brother; a sister; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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