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Dr. Arno Motulsky

Dr. Arno Motulsky fled Nazi Germany and became a global leader in medical genetics. Here is the story of his amazing journey and successful career.

Arno Motulsky in his office
UW medical geneticist Dr. Arno Motulsky in his lab

Young boy in Nazi Germany

Born of Jewish parents near Koenigsberg, Dr. Motulsky had a happy childhood, free of any trouble. That changed in 1933 when the Nazis took over the German government and mounted a vicious campaign against Jews.

"We were frightened. At age 15, I wrote in my diary, 'What will happen to us if Hitler were to win the war?.'"

Motulsky's father was forced to leave Germany and escaped to Cuba. The hope was that his wife and children would emigrate later, but the remaining family was not able to leave Germany until May 1939. They departed with almost 1,000 other German Jews on the ocean liner SS St. Louis.

Voyage of the Damned
"Voyage of the Damned", a book about the SS St. Louis.

Motulsky said, "Once the ship arrived in Havana, the Cuban government had invalidated our landing certificates. Passengers were not allowed to go ashore." Denied landing, the ship turned back toward Germany and passed the coast of Florida. Three days before the ship was to arrive in Germany, the Belgian government granted the passengers temporary asylum.

The Motulsky family was then sent to Brussels, where Motulsky attended high school and eventually obtained U.S. visas. Before they could leave, the German army attacked Belgium and the teenage Motulsky was sent to a succession of internment camps in France. After about  a year, Motulsky moved to a camp near Marseilles where he was allowed to visit the American consulate and apply for U.S. visa renewal. Ten days before he turned 18, Motulsky crossed into Spain and boarded a Portuguese ship sailing to New York.

Arrival in United States

After his safe arrival in New York, Motulsky reunited with his father in Chicago and took pre-medical courses evenings and Saturdays while working week days in a hospital laboratory.

"When I was 20, I joined the U.S. Army which needed doctors for the war. I was selected for the Army Specialized Training Program. Guess where they sent me? Imagine. From the grim internment camps of France to Yale University. What a country!"

Later Motulsky entered the University of Illinois medical school in Chicago where he earned an M.D. degree with high honors. During an internal medicine residency, Motulsky was mentored in hematology by Karl Singer at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. Afterward, he re-enlisted in the U.S. Army, which assigned him to a blood disease lab at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Joining the University of Washington faculty

Arno Motulsky came to the UW in 1953 as an instructor in hematology, having trained with Karl Singer in Chicago at Michael Reese Hospital and with William Crosby at Walter Reed Army Graduate School.

Because of Motulsky's interest in hereditary hemolytic anemias and genetic disorders in general, the suggestion by Department of Medicine chair Robert Williams that he spend more time in genetics fell on responsive ears.

Establishing the Division of Medical Genetics

After a year at the Galton Laboratory of University College in London under Lionel Penrose, Motulsky returned in 1957 to build a division of medical genetics. This preceded the establishment of the Department of Genetics in UW's College of Arts and Sciences by three years. Several division members later obtained joint appointments with this department.

Arno Motulsky and Joseph Goldstein
Dr. Motulsky and his former trainee, Joseph Goldstein, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in medical genetics.

The UW became one of only a few medical schools providing training in medical genetics.  It attracted physicians interested in the field, who went on to become faculty at other institutions in the United States and Europe.

"Among my many trainees was Joseph Goldstein,” Motulsky said. “He continued his research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1985.”

Motulsky helped establish one of the first clinics in the country to provide family counseling for genetic diseases and to employ women in this profession.  

In 1967 the division obtained a program-project grant on gene action, and in 1972 NIH funded a broadly based center. Subsequent research in human and medical genetics has been far-ranging, consistent with the many interests of Motulsky and other faculty members.

Motulsky's Research

The principal theme of the work of Dr. Motulsky is the role of heredity-environment interactions in the pathogenesis of disease. Dr. Motulsky introduced the concept of genetically determined drug reactions (pharmacogenetics) and worked extensively on several pharmacogenetic traits.

Dr. Motulsky's recent work in this field focuses on the study of lipid-related genes and is being carried out at genetic and population genetic levels. Other work deals with the genetics of homocysteine elevations as a risk factor in arteriosclerotic vascular disease and polymorphisms for MT hydrofolate reductase and the role of folic acid in regulating homocysteine levels.

Another aspect of Dr. Motulsky's work is on the molecular genetics of color vision genes. Much heterogeneity was found in the molecular make-up of color vision pigment genes in individuals with normal and with defective color vision. The psychophysical perception of color is correlated with molecular gene arrangement.

Motulsky has written more than 400 scientific articles and co-authored, with F. Vogel, a definitive text for study and teaching human genetics, now in its fourth edition.

Arno Motulsky in his library
Dr. Motulsky in the library of his Seattle home

Looking back over the extraordinary arc of his life, Motulsky said:

"I feel that I was lucky at so many stages in my life. There were times when things that could have happened did not take place. I had the opportunity to work on topics that have been helpful to others and interesting to me. I sometimes would like to hibernate for 30 years, then wake up to find out the status of genetics and genomics as applied to medicine."

This article was taken from the UW Medicine magazine for alumni of the University of Washington School of Medicine, Fall 2002, Volume 25, No. 2, and from an article by Clement A. Finch, M.D., titled "Fulfilling the Dream: A History of the University of Washington School of Medicine, 1946-1988"