Discovering the Structure of DNA
James Watson (b. 1928) and Francis Crick (b. 1916)

Breakthroughs in any discipline are built upon the work and ideas of many. The structure of DNA-the basis for genetic engineering and "Genetown" -is one example.

In 1962 James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, a double helix that contains life's hereditary information. By then James Watson was at Harvard influencing a generation of researchers and writing his controversial book about their discovery, The Double Helix, which was first published in 1968.

Watson was an American working in Britain who had started out in ornithology, left birds for viruses, then was attracted to the race to discover the formation of DNA. The respected American chemist Linus Pauling was considered the front-runner. At 35, Crick had not completed his Ph.D. and had wandered from physics into chemistry and biology. Crick and Watson shared an indifference to scientific boundaries, and a brash impatience with the opinions of others, and authority. Working in the same lab at Cambridge University, they formed an intellectual collaboration that was extraordinary.

At the same time, at King's College in London, Rosalind Franklin, with the new technique of x-ray crystallography, had discovered that the sugar- phosphate backbone of DNA lies on the outside of the molecule and clarified the basic helical structure of DNA. Unfortunately, this brilliant woman died of cancer at age 37, and the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously. Maurice Wilkins, her colleague, was also working on DNA and showed the unpublished picture to Watson without Franklin's consent. Franklin and Wilkins disliked one another, so the flow of ideas in that lab was stifled.

Meanwhile, Watson and Crick were putting together all the pieces on 3-D models. They wrote their findings in the journal Nature, ending with their famous understatement: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

 The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James Watson, 2001