Crick and Watson discover DNA

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History on 25th April


Battle of Hedgeley Moor

Robinson Crusoe Published

Treaty of Amiens Signed

Crick and Watson discover DNA

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire The 25th of April 1953 AD

The story of the unravelling of the mystery of DNA is one of the most compelling in science, not just for the importance of the findings, but because of the drama, some would say tragedy, behind it.

It was to be British physicist turned molecular biologist Francis Crick, then aged 35, and American wunderkind James Watson, 23, who would go down in history as having uncovered the secrets of DNA, and they along with New Zealander Maurice Wilkins went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 for the discoveries. But others had put together many of the pieces of the jigsaw: Linus Pauling in the USA, and most importantly for Crick and Watson Rosalind Franklin of King’s College London .

Franklin however became bogged down in minute detail about elements of the investigations that kept her from grasping the whole situation. She did, however, just before Crick and Watson published, finally put all the pieces together. It was Franklin’s lecture in November 1951 that turned James Watson on to the significance of the problem, and the glory awaiting whoever could solve it. It was also Franklin whose critique of earlier flawed work by the pair put them back on the right track.

A vitally important photograph of part of the DNA structure made by X-Ray crystallography expert Franklin and seen by Watson early in 1953 also helped him towards the truth, as did Crick’s sighting of a government report she had produced.

Franklin’s work was then of undeniable value, but it was the Crick and Watson team which put together all the pieces, and grasped the solutions to the various parts of the problem. Their work was hypothetical rather than experimental, but they won the race, partly because of the famed fit between their abilities, minds and attitudes. It was Crick and Watson who saw that complementarity between the four balanced building blocks of DNA was the key to replication and thus the double helix structure of DNA. This creative cooperation contrasts starkly with Rosalind Franklin, who as a proto-feminist in a male-dominated field in a sexist age seems to have been incapable of or prevented from collaborating creatively with those colleagues who could have given her the slight nudges in the right direction that her work required at various stages.

On February 28 1953 Crick, as they were together in a pub, famously told his colleague they had solved the secret of life. They published a basic paper on March 18 that year, and on April 2 finished a paper that was published in the journal Nature on April 25: “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid”, one of the most significant papers in the history of science. They nodded towards the work done by experimental colleagues Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in London, but it was the Cambridge pair who would be remembered as the ones who had finally cracked the structure of DNA.
Crick and Watson, along with Wilkins, became Nobel laureates in 1962. Sadly Wilkins, whose spadework had been so vital in the story, died of cancer in 1958, and as the Nobel committee makes no posthumous awards her part in the story did not receive the recognition a share of the prize would have brought her.

Crick, a real polymath, went on to work in the field of consciousness and the brain. Watson became an exceptionally powerful and successful manager and administrator of scientific research, heading up in a late stage of his career the Human Genome Project, thus neatly driving on some of the major practical aspects of his discoveries in the early 1950s.

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