Little Hall at the University of Maine in Orono is seen in this June 29, 2020, photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

With respect to efforts now underway at the University of Maine in Orono to change the name of Little Hall on the campus there, I write as an advocate for an accurate representation of the thought processes and accomplishments of my father, Dr. Clarence Little.

The accomplishments of his complete life have been ignored by advocates of renaming the building now bearing his name. Their criticism of Little is based on their perception of his positions with respect to eugenics in the 1920s and his work with tobacco companies in the 1950 and 1960s to determine if smoking caused lung cancer. They may be uninformed about how those two activities developed.

Little was trained in genetics at the time in history when genetics was emerging as a new science. Early geneticists were becoming aware of the need for purebred strains of organisms being studied in order to learn what genes and alleles were doing in those organisms, including humans.

Eugenics initially was embraced as a scientific aid to identify differences in races. Geneticists viewed all races as unique “stocks” of humans. This view was similar to their view of all species of organisms.

There is complete agreement today that eugenics was completely abused by politicians to satisfy their constituencies and scientists trying to identify human beings’ intelligence, athleticism and social behavior, to the exclusion of moderate views and common sense. We can all agree that eugenics is very bad science to define human differences. Concepts of the differences among individual humans are now identified by genomic data. Prior to computers, genomics could not have existed; the genomic map was once considered unobtainable by human researchers.

When the theory that smoking caused lung cancer was expounded to the media and lay world, it immediately was challenged by researchers who wanted proof of the alleged cause and effect path from a cigarette to cancer. Little said at the time “no one knows what causes cancer.” That is still true today.

The Council for Tobacco Research asked Little to be its scientific director. He accepted, with the proviso that research to find the truth about lung cancer and tobacco would not be dictated by the tobacco companies. The later discovery that tobacco companies knew for years that cigarettes were addictive is an ethical and possibly criminal matter. Smoking contributes, by statistical association, to many serious diseases, but no one has proved precisely what causes lung cancer, or any other cancers.

Little’s attempt to lead the search for the truth of how lung cancer forms was not successful, but it was not evil or fraudulent, so far as he knew.

Little was UMaine’s president in the early 1920s, and fought hard to increase the university’s support from the Legislature. He then was president of the University of Michigan. He also worked closely with Margret Sanger in the founding of what is now Planned Parenthood. In 1929, he founded The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. It started as a group of 11 people. It has grown into an organization of more than 1,000 people with branches in Connecticut and California.

Little realized that medicine and research needed genetically identical animals (mice) for accurate and verifiable research. The Jackson Lab developed purebred strains of mice, which are found in all laboratories doing cancer research. As director of the Jackson Laboratory, Little provided a place for the occasional cancer researcher who could find no financial support for “maverick” ideas.

His achievements very much outweigh his faults.

Richard Little of Amherst, New Hampshire, served in the U.S. Air Force before receiving a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maine. He is a retired engineer.