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H. Bentley Glass, 98; Offered Sweeping View of the Future for Nonscientists

Obituaries

January 25, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

H. Bentley Glass, a biologist and geneticist who bluntly shared his views on major societal issues, including the blending of genetic traits among races, mandatory testing of prospective parents to prevent birth defects and licenses to bear children, has died. He was 98.

Glass died Jan. 16 in Boulder, Colo., of pneumonia.

A distinguished professor, Glass made his strong opinions known outside academia through a column in the Baltimore Sun, speeches, testimony before Congress and in consulting work with government and private agencies around the world.

"If we are going to build a civilization based on science," he said in explaining his wide-ranging efforts for Newsday in 1967, "then the man in the street is going to have to learn what science is."

Among Glass' attention-grabbing pronouncements were:

* "Genetic drift," or a shifting of genes among races, makes any theory of pure race, or segregation based on it, moot.

* Nuclear testing can cause serious genetic defects, and the only creatures to survive a nuclear holocaust would be insects and bacteria, with the cockroach, which he termed "a venerable and hardy species," reigning supreme.

* Babies could be produced in test tubes by 1985, and parents should be tested for potential genetic defects before they are allowed to have children.

* To curb world overpopulation, children should be licensed -- the first permitted, with a tax exemption; the second approved with no tax exemption; and a tax added for any additional child. "The right to have children can't remain unlimited," he said in a 1964 Los Angeles speech. "This is because the increase in world population is the second most serious threat to mankind. The most serious is nuclear war."

A self-described old-fashioned liberal, Glass was also known for his staunch defense of civil liberties. In 1960, he rejected an appointment to Maryland's Radiation Control Advisory Board because the post required a loyalty oath.

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

Similarly, he used his own and other scientific studies about race relations in 1955, when he was a member of Baltimore's board of school commissioners, to press for quick compliance with the historic 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision.

Glass was born Jan. 17, 1906, in what is now Yehsien, China, the son of American Baptist missionaries from Texas. He was educated in China until the age of 17, then went to Texas to enroll in Decatur Baptist College. Two years later, he transferred to Baylor University in Waco, where he received a bachelor's degree in biology. After teaching for several years in Timpson, Texas, he earned a master's degree at Baylor and a doctorate at the University of Texas in Austin.

Glass did postdoctoral research at the University of Oslo in 1932 and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1933. But after Albert Einstein and other scientists left Germany during the Nazi rise to power, Glass returned to the U.S. to complete his postdoctoral work at the University of Missouri.

He began his teaching career at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., and taught biology at Goucher College in Baltimore. In 1948, he moved to Johns Hopkins University, where he did much of his genetic drift research.

In 1965, he was hired as vice president of academic affairs and biology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, helping create what some dubbed an "instant Caltech."

Glass wrote several books, including "Genes and the Man" in 1943, "Science and Liberal Education" in 1959 and "Science and Ethical Values" in 1965, and many articles. He edited the Quarterly Review of Biology and was acting editor of Science as well as Scientific Monthly.

He was president of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Society of Naturalists, the American Society of Human Genetics, Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society and the National Assn. of Biology Teachers.

"Yes, I suppose I am diffusing my energies," he once told Saturday Review. "I may as a consequence know less about drosophila [fruit flies] than I should, but rather more, I hope, about life. I consider my activities different means to the same goal -- educating laymen in the questing spirit of science and reminding science of its social responsibility."

Glass' wife of 59 years, Suzanne, died in 1993, and their son, Alan, died in 1991. He is survived by a daughter, Lois Edgar, of Boulder; a brother; a sister; five grandsons; and two great-grandsons.

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