H. Bentley Glass was at one time one of the most famous scientists in the nation. His life was a journey that began with missionary parents and a Texas education. Glass traveled the world, wrote volumes of books, made important scientific discoveries, and in the 1950s and 1960s, helped the entire nation start thinking about science and the ethics of the latest discoveries.
His parents, both devout Baptists, were from Texas and went to China to serve as missionaries. Glass was born in Yeshien, in eastern China, in 1906. Because of his parent’s work serving the spiritual and physical needs of the people of China, he spent most of his childhood there.
When it was time to start college, Glass moved to Texas. He enrolled at Decatur Baptist College in Decatur before transferring to Baylor University in Waco. After earning a bachelors degree in biology, he taught school briefly in the small town of Timpson in East Texas. He returned to Baylor to complete a masters degree in biology before enrolling at the University of Texas where he earned his doctorate in genetics in 1932.
He went to Berlin for a few years to conduct research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where he was disturbed by the purge of Jewish people from academic and research positions as Nazi rule took root. He left Germany quickly and worked briefly as a researcher in Missouri before beginning teaching at Stephens College in central Missouri. Before long, he accepted a position at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.
In 1948, Glass became a professor of genetics at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He became an active member of the community and served on the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners from 1954 to 1958, guiding the local schools through the early years of desegregation. Glass also steadily built a reputation among academics and the general public alike for his work. Throughout his career, he wrote upwards of 500 academic articles. Glass published “Genes and The Man” in 1943 to explain genetics to a wider audience. He served as editor of the Quarterly Review of Biology for 42 years from 1944 until 1986. He also served as editor of the respected journal Science in 1953. In addition, he wrote a column on science issues for the Baltimore Evening Sun.
His scientific work included developing theories on genetic drift, or how often changes in traits appear within a given population. He also served on the Atomic Energy Commission as an advisor in the 1950s on issues surrounding the impact of radiation on living organisms. It was Glass who implanted the idea in the American imagination that roaches, with their abilities to withstand radiation, may be the only survivors of a nuclear holocaust.
He was outspoken on a variety of scientific issues. He called for nuclear disarmament in the 1960s. He condemned eugenics laws that sterilized groups for perceived genetic weaknesses. He served as president of more than half a dozen scientific groups throughout his career. As he had throughout much of his career, he continued to write and speak about ethical issues in science and research, publishing “Science and Ethical Values” in 1965 and “The Ethical Basis of Science” in 1969.
Glass took controversial stands. He served as president of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1955 to 1965. Some of his predictions, such as his belief that people may one day have to undergo genetic testing before they had children, caused much controversy as well as his prediction of the advent of test-tube babies.
In 1965, Glass left Johns Hopkins to take the role of academic vice-president and biology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He continued to work to educate not only the next generation of scientists but the public at large. In 1967, he stated in an interview, “If we are going to build a civilization based on science, then the man in the street is going to have to learn what science is.”
He stepped down from his administrative role in 1971 and retired from teaching in 1976 at the age of 70, but he continued to work. His mind and drive remained strong. For the next 19 years, he worked as an archivist at the American Philosophical Library in Philadelphia, commuting more than 100 miles each way from his home outside New York City to Pennsylvania. At the age of 89, he retired for good. He lived a quiet life in retirement in Boulder, Colorado. He died one day before his ninety-ninth birthday in 2005. He left a large legacy in the popular mind about science, having worked for his lifelong goals he described as “educating laymen in the questing spirit of science and reminding science of its social responsibility.”