65 years ago, on May 15, 1953 an article “Why You are You: Nearer the Secret of Life” by Ritchie Calder was published in a London news paper, the News Chronicle. The article is about the discovery of the structure of DNA, the genetic material which carries the code to build living cells.
The story of the discovery of life’s secret is told by one of the participants James Watson in his book “The Double Helix”. As an young man of 21, he started a journey which ended in the discovery of the mechanism by which genetic traits are passed from parents to offspring. The Double Helix structure of Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid (DNA), could pull apart and replicate themselves, thus passing their genetic information from old cells to new. Watson described the structure of DNA as “so beautiful it had to be true”.
So how this beauty was discovered? Read “The Double Helix” by Dr Watson to find out. Find out how a new scientific discovery is the result of collaboration, knowledge sharing, hard work, frustrations and professional rivalries among scientific workers. Learn how Watson and his collaborator Francis Kirk meticulously built the model of DNA’s structure with inputs and help from dozens of scientists around the world.
Giving below an article in The Guardian in 2013 by Brenda Maddox – on the occassion of 60th anniversary of the great discovery.
I have never seen James Watson in a modest mood. It may be rash to mark the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA by paraphrasing the opening sentence of his notoriously immodest 1968 book The Double Helix [I have never seen Francis Kirk in a modest mood.]. But as I prepare to write the biography of the man who, with Francis Crick, discovered the double helical structure of the molecule that forms our genes, I think of his remark that of all his work he was proudest of his writings.
The Double Helix tells how Watson, then 25, discovered the secret of life at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in late February 1953. Watson himself discovered the twisting pair of strands of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that lie inside the living cell. The structure suggested these pairs could pull apart and replicate themselves, thus passing their genetic information from old cells to new: the secret of life indeed. The double helix, when discovered, was in Watson’s words at the time, so beautiful it had to be true.
It is not widely realised that Watson, although the youngest of the three who shared the Nobel Prize in 1962, was the driving force behind the discovery of the double helix. Neither Crick (who died in 2004) of the Cavendish Laboratory, nor Maurice Wilkins of King’s College London (who also died in 2004) was likely to have reached the goal without the pushing and prodding of the gauche young man from Chicago. Yet their discovery 60 years ago this month [April 2013] ranks among the most important in the history of science.
The news of the internal structure of the gene was first made public on 8 April 1953 by Sir Lawrence Bragg, director of the Cavendish, but he made it at the Solvay conference on proteins in Belgium and it went unnoticed by the press. It was revealed to the scientific world in the magazine Nature in a paper by Watson, Crick and Wilkins, which included the now-famous understatement: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”
The press did not pick up the news of the Nature paper. However, a talk by Bragg on 14 May at Guy’s Hospital in London prompted an article by Ritchie Calder in the News Chronicle the following day with the heading, “Why You Are You: Nearer the Secret of Life”. A similar story appeared in the New York Times on the same day. It ran in an early edition but was then pulled.
World recognition of the discovery came with the Nobel Prize, but it only really made the papers when The Double Helix was published and gave the news to the world at large. The book also introduced the figure of Rosalind Franklin, the King’s College chemist whose work, unknown to her, was revealed to Watson and Crick by Wilkins.
Watson has been much criticised for his portrayal of the “terrible Rosie” in The Double Helix but, as Franklin’s biographer, my answer to critics is that if it weren’t for Watson, no one would have heard of Rosalind Franklin. He is deservedly in the top rank of writers of the 20th century.
About Rosalind Franklin