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Subject: Heredity, Macroevolution, Modern evolutionary synthesis, Species problem, Drosophila hybrid sterility, History of molecular evolution
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This name uses Eastern/Southern Slavic naming customs; the patronymic is Grygorovych and the family name is Dobzhansky.
Theodosius Dobzhansky
Outdoor photograph of an older man with thinning white hair, dressed in a suit.
Theodosius Dobzhansky, c. 1966
Born Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky
(1900-01-24)January 24, 1900
Nemyriv, Dnieper Ukraine,
Russian Empire
Died December 18, 1975(1975-12-18) (aged 75)
San Jacinto, California,
United States
Fields Evolutionary biology, genetics
Notable students Francisco J. Ayala, Richard Lewontin
Spouse Natalia Sivertzeva (m. 1924, d. 1969)

Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky ForMemRS[1] (Ukrainian: Теодосій Григорович Добжанський; Russian: Феодо́сий Григо́рьевич Добржа́нский; January 24, 1900 – December 18, 1975) was a prominent geneticist and evolutionary biologist, and a central figure in the field of evolutionary biology for his work in shaping the unifying modern evolutionary synthesis.[2] Dobzhansky was born in Imperial Russia (now Ukraine) and emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States as a young man in 1927.

He published a major work of the modern evolutionary synthesis, Genetics and the Origin of Species, in 1937.

He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1964,[3] and the Franklin Medal in 1973.


Early life

Dobzhansky was born on January 24, 1900 in Nemyriv, Russian Empire. An only child, his father Grigory Dobzhansky was a mathematics teacher, and his mother was Sophia Voinarsky.[4] In 1910 the family moved to Kiev, Ukraine. At high school, Dobzhansky collected butterflies and decided to become a biologist.[5] 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.

Before moving to the USA, Dobzhansky published 35 scientific works on entomology, genetics and zootechnique.


Dobzhansky emigrated to the United States in 1927 on a scholarship from the International Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation to work and study in the United States. 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,[6] 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.[7] 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),[8] 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).

In 1970, he published Genetics of the evolutionary process.[9]

Final illness and the "Light of Evolution"

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, influenced by the paleontologist/priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

By 1975, his leukemia had become more severe, and on November 11 he traveled 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.

Religious beliefs

A constant defender of Darwinian evolution, he was also, according to his student Francisco J. Ayala, "a religious man" who nonetheless rejected belief in "the existence of a personal God and of life beyond physical death."[10] However, Ernst Mayr stated the opposite: "On the other hand, famous evolutionists such as Dobzhansky were firm believers in a personal God."[11] Dobzhansky himself spoke of God as creating through evolution, and considered himself a communicant of the Eastern Orthodox Church.[12] Dobzhansky was a lifelong member and eventual chairman of the American Eugenics Society, though he disagreed with sterilizing people carrying recessive genes, believing nature would do the weeding on its own.[13] He signed the Eugenics manifesto calling for, among other things, voluntary sterilization.



  • Sinnott, E.W., Dunn, L.C and Dobzhansky, Th. 1925. Principles of Genetics. McGraw Hill. (4 editions: 1925, 1932, 1939, 1950)
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1937. Genetics and the Origin of Species. Columbia University Press, New York. (2nd ed., 1941; 3rd ed., 1951)
  • The Biological Basis of Human Freedom (1954).
  • Dunn, L. C., & Dobzhansky, Th. 1946. Heredity, Race, and Society. The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1955. Evolution, Genetics, & Man. Wiley & Sons, New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1962. Mankind Evolving. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1967. The Biology of Ultimate Concern. New American Library, New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1970. Genetics of the Evolutionary Process. Columbia University Press, New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1973. Genetic Diversity and Human Equality. Basic Books, New York.
  • Dobzhansky, Th., F.J. Ayala, G.L. Stebbins & J.W. Valentine. 1977. Evolution. W.H. Freeman, San Francisco.
  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1981. Dobzhansky's Genetics of Natural Populations I-XLIII. R.C. Lewontin, J.A. Moore, W.B. Provine & B. Wallace, eds. Columbia University Press, New York. (reprints the 43 papers in this series, all but two of which were authored or co-authored by Dobzhansky)
  • Dobzhansky, Th., & Boesiger, E. 1983. Human Culture, A Moment in Evolution. Columbia University Press, New York.


  • Dobzhansky, Th. 1973. "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" The American Biology Teacher 35: (March): 125-129.


  • Dobzhansky, Th. Wrote a recension of "The origin of races" by Carleton Coon. Dobzhansky rejected Coon's theory of independent origin of identical mutations, but he did agree that selection favored a sapiens-like genotype in all proto-human populations, and expressed the theory that all sapiens-alleles existed at a low frequency in all erectus-populations, and that the statistical composition of the gene pool shifted from erectus to sapiens in multiple populations independently.

Further reading

See also


External links

  • biography
  • Francisco J. Ayala
  • American Philosophical Society
  • National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir
Preceded by
George B. Kistiakowsky
Recipient of the Elliott Cresson Medal
Succeeded by
Nikolai Nikolaevich Bogoliubov

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