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Photographer, Prisoner, Polyglot
NIDDK's Tjio Ends Distinguished Scientific Career

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...
Today is the birthday of the scientist who discovered, some 42 years ago, the correct number of chromosomes in human cells. If you act quickly, you can honor the man and his accomplishment by viewing a modest exhibit in the Lipsett Gallery in Bldg. 10, just outside Lipsett Amphitheater, before it closes Mar. 3.

There you will find 11 remarkable photographs taken by this son of a professional portrait photographer, and a brief summary of his scientific career. The photos document, in plants, insects, mammals and man, chromosomes frozen at precisely that moment in division when they can be seen distinctly as separate, wondrous entities.

Today is also the day Dr. Joe Hin Tjio (pronounced CHEE-o) reluctantly leaves unit 411 in Apartment Bldg. 20, which has been home to him and his wife Inga since 1966; they have been residents of the building since Tjio first came to NIH in 1959 as a visiting scientist.

It is a flat dominated by books the way a prairie is dominated by grasses. Even the chairs groan with volumes, not to mention the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that claim every wall. There are really only two themes to the few photographs that compete, albeit feebly, with the literature: photos of chromosomes, and photos of the Tjios' son, Yu Hin, born 4 years before the family moved to NIH.

Because the apartment building is scheduled for demolition next fall to make way for a new Clinical Research Center, all residents -- including several with tenures that rival or exceed the Tjios -- must be gone by Aug. 31. Packing, for the Tjios, means sifting through a career alternately savaged by fate and soothed by serendipity.

Tjio at his apartment in Bldg. 20, where he has lived for the past 38 years. Among the treasures he must pack are honorary degrees from Europe and Japan, whose prisoner he was during World War II.

Born to Chinese parents in 1919 in Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies, Joe Hin Tjio learned how to make photographs early in life, serving as an apprentice to his father, who had a studio. "He had a darkroom," Tjio recalls. "I had to develop photographs for him. I had to help make prints."

He finds on the wall a favorite print of a soaring bird, dwarfed against billows of light and dark.

Educated in strict Dutch colonial schools, which required that he learn French, German and English, in addition to Dutch, Tjio, whose native tongue was one of the many Indonesian languages, trained in agronomy in college. He became deeply involved in potato breeding as he matured as a scientist, trying to create a hybrid resistant to a common disease.

Then war intervened. In 1942, Tjio was imprisoned by the Japanese Imperial Army, which occupied his country. For 3 years, until World War II ended, Tjio languished in a concentration camp, enduring torture (for daring to provide medical help to those worse off than him) and "horrible things" that are still obviously painful to recall.

"I knitted sweaters and underwear for the other prisoners to fill my time," he remembered, his eyes welling. "These are painful memories."

When the war ended, he boarded a Red Cross boat for displaced persons and shipped to Holland, whose government provided him with a fellowship for study in Europe.

"I stayed with the relatives of people I had helped in prison," he recalls. "They helped me adjust myself. It was only about 3 months. I came there in the spring, and by August I was able to continue work in plant breeding in Copenhagen and Sweden."

He stayed half a year at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen, then journeyed to the University of Lund in Sweden, where he began an association with the Institute of Genetics headed by Dr. Albert Levan. His work by now had broadened to include mammalian tissues.

"He got into cytogenetics by necessity," notes retired medical geneticist Dr. Gordon Allen (NIMH, 1952-1984), who has been a close friend ever since Tjio came to work at NIH. "His work in plant genetics called for it."

Tjio's successful research garnered the attention of the government of Spain, which invited him to work on a plant improvement program there. From 1948 to 1959, he directed cytogenetic research in Zaragoza, Allen relates, taking summers and holidays off to work with Levan in Sweden.

"I was trying to study human chromosomes," Tjio says, when a serendipitous discovery occurred to him in the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 1955. Building on techniques for separating chromosomes on glass slides that had been pioneered by Dr. T.C. Hsu at the University of Texas in Galveston, Tjio introduced improvements that yielded startling results. He could count quite clearly in human embryonic lung tissue that there were 46 chromosomes, not 48, as had been science's best estimate in the preceding half century.

"The number was just an incidental finding, like serendipity," he says today. "I just was surprised that it was not 48, as they had thought for so many years."

In his excitement, Tjio shared his results with his Swedish colleagues. "Levan was on vacation, so I showed it to them." Their unanimous verdict was that Tjio should publish his findings immediately, and with himself as first author, which was contrary to tradition in European universities that held that the lab's chief always got top credit on work issuing from his lab.

Thus began another harrowing chapter in Tjio's career that would rival his imprisonment as a source of anguish. He decided to refuse Levan first authorship on the grounds that Levan contributed nothing but resources to the work.

"I told him no, I wouldn't allow him to be first author," Tjio recalls. "I said if you want to be the author, you do the work." Tjio went so far as to threaten to throw all of his work away, daring Levan to reproduce his results.

According to Tjio, Levan demurred at this point, pleading, "Don't do that. It belongs to science."

"You want better to tell the truth than to be diplomatic," counseled Tjio's wife Inga, a native of Iceland and a polyglot herself, who had been a student of natural history when they met in 1946.

"It has hurt me so much," replied her husband.

"Life isn't fair, as you are always saying," answered Inga, who later soothes Joe Hin by assuring, "Everybody who knows you, knows the truth."

Since Levan is still alive, in his nineties, they are reluctant to stir the ashes of an old controversy. Though Tjio's health has failed in recent years, the incident yet crackles in unit 411 as the scientist's natural urge to speak the truth collides with overarching concerns about civility.

Tjio insists that his groundbreaking finding, published in the Scandinavian journal Hereditas on Jan. 26, 1956, didn't make him famous or change him in any way. But the paper created great international excitement and Tjio was soon fielding offers to speak and teach.

Tjio accepts a trophy from President John F. Kennedy on Dec. 6, 1962, honoring him as an International Prize Award winner of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation. The prize recognized Tjio's work on mental retardation. At rear left is the president's mother, Rose Kennedy.

In 1956, at the first International Human Genetics Congress in Copenhagen (see photo, main page), Tjio was approached by Indiana University professor and Nobel laureate Herman Muller, who persuaded Tjio to consider emigrating to the United States, where his expertise was highly sought, especially by Dr. T.T. Puck at the University of Colorado.

"I didn't want to come to a country (embroiled in) this Joe McCarthy business," snorts Tjio. "I don't want to come. I have just had this experience with the Japanese."

Muller persisted, sending Tjio clippings critical of McCarthy from the New York Times. "Muller said, 'Give my country a chance. We are not all McCarthyites,'" Tjio recalls.

Tjio relented in 1957, arriving at the University of Colorado for a stint with Puck during which he earned his Ph.D. For the oral part of his examination he chose German and Spanish from his palette of tongues. (Of their ease with many languages, Inga chuckles, "We read them if we don't speak them, eh?")

Shortly thereafter, NIH's Dr. DeWitt Stetten, Jr., invited Tjio to join the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases' Laboratory of Experimental Pathology. Like many visiting scientists of the past 40 years, he was invited to live on campus in Bldg. 20. In 1959, the Tjios moved in, largely because "I wanted to remain within walking distance of my lab," he says. Inga adds mischievously, "It was because my husband never drove a car!"

At NIH, Tjio built on the ramifications of his chromosome work, studying leukemia and mental retardation. Ironically, his son suffered complications at birth and was affected by the latter condition. For many years his lab was in Bldg. 10. Late in his career, his space was moved to Bldg. 8, and in February 1992 Tjio retired with the status of scientist emeritus, retaining his space and resources. However on Jan. 31, he gave up the lab and will soon move with Inga to Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg.

Asked his feelings on closing his long association with NIH, Tjio answers, "Depression. I would prefer to stay. After all, I spent half of my life here."

Getting ready to vacate on his 78th birthday, Tjio seemed resigned to the change. "Usually it snows" on his birthday, noted Inga.

Packing has renewed his association with the objects closest to his heart -- mainly images of his son. (There is also one of Inga's grandmother, smoking a pipe. "She started smoking at 15 and died at age 96, and never had cancer, eh?" laughs Inga.) For the first time, he smiles broadly to recall his favorite photographic subjects. "My son," he declares triumphantly, "and children."

Special thanks to Dr. Gordon Allen, who helped make this story possible; he in turn credits designer Rayne Ann Wood of the Medical Arts and Photography Branch, NCRR, whom he helped prepare the exhibit honoring Tjio. -- Ed.

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