Genius and Genetics: V.P Efroimson's Controversial Study of Creativity

Yvonne H. Howell, University of Richmond

When the Russian geneticist V. P. Efroimson was released early from a 10–year prison camp sentence in 1955, he was at first forbidden to return to the field of genetics as an active researcher and teacher. He managed to find a position as librarian in the Moscow Library of Foreign Literature, where along with his duties of translating abstracts from the six languages he knew, he applied his legendary capacity for work to the completion of several seminal scientific papers on the mechanism of genetically inherited diseases and immunities. During this time he also wrote two monumental textbooks on genetics and medicine, whose publication in 1964 signaled the beginning of a post-Lysenko resurrection of genetic science in the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1970s, Efroimson had completed drafts of a lengthy work devoted to illuminating the link between inherited bipolar disease and exceptional creativity. The resulting volume, a manuscript he titled "Genial'nost' i genetika" was not published until 1998, as one of many planned volumes of Efroimson's previously banned work.

Efroimson's work on the casual correlation between a damaging, genetically inherited disease and artistic genius raises a number of fascinating interdisciplinary questions. Evolutionary theory must account for a destructive disease that sometimes confers an advantage to the individual and society in the form of "heightened creativity." Cultural theorists will ask how the myth of the volatile and tortured artist can be untangled from a possible biological underpinning. Some of us will have a prurient interest in asking—who? Was Gogol' a manic-depressive? Did Pushkin have gout (a chemically-related syndrome)? What about Batyushkov, Blok, Andreev?

Literary theorists are justifiably wary about applying the study of biological pathologies to our understanding of the non-pathological processes of artistic creation. To set the stage for further exploration of this topic, in this paper I give a brief summary of the controversy Efroimson's ideas provoked within Soviet literary circles, which prevented his manuscript from being published at that time.