Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Discovery of DNA

It was noted today in The Writer’s Almanac.

It was on this day in 1953 that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule, which became the key to understanding how all organisms pass genetic information on to their offspring. James Watson was only 23 years old at the time. Crick was older, but he hadn't even finished his Ph.D. They were working in a lab in Cambridge, England, where they didn't even have the right equipment to examine DNA. That equipment was located at King's College in London. Watson tried to get a job there by setting his sister up with one of the King's College scientists, but it didn't work out.
They were devastated when the world-renowned scientist Linus Pauling published a paper proposing a structure for DNA. But they immediately realized that his structure was wrong, and they vowed to beat him in the race to the answer. They learned that a woman named Rosalind Franklin was taking X-Ray pictures of DNA, and they decided that the only way to discover the structure was to look at those pictures.
Watson got to know Rosalind Franklin's lab partner, Maurice Wilkins, and one night he persuaded Wilkins to show him one of the X-ray pictures that Franklin had taken of a DNA molecule. On the train ride back to Cambridge, Watson sketched the picture on a newspaper. When he got back to his lab, he and Crick spent several days building theoretical models of the molecule. They hit on the correct structure on this day in 1953. Once they realized what they had accomplished, they went to the local bar to celebrate. Toasting their discovery, Watson shouted, "We have discovered the secret of life!" They would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Rosalind Franklin would also have gotten credit, but she had died of cancer by the time the prize was awarded.
I found their dismissal of Rosalind Franklin and the shenanigans with Maurice Wilkins a little understated, even, dare I say, dismissive. I’d love to read Brenda Maddox’s biography of Rosalind Franklin, but just don’t have a moment right now.

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