Spare a thought for the many scientists who could have claimed the DNA double helix discovery but didn'tby Matt Ridley / May 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
How extremely stupid not to have thought of it!” Thomas Huxley’s purported reaction on first hearing of Darwin’s idea of natural selection can be repeated in spades for the event whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated this April: the double helix of DNA, surely the greatest biological prize of the 20th century, as natural selection was of the 19th.
James Watson and Francis Crick got the credit, the Nobel Prize and a place in the scientific pantheon. But their success generated-and still generates-occasional resentment, not least because of Watson’s brutally honest recounting, in The Double Helix, of how they stumbled to success, treading on the toes of others as they went. Some of those others spent the rest of their lives kicking themselves.
In the case of DNA, unlike most scientific breakthroughs, there was a true Eureka moment. It came on 28th February 1953, at about 9.30am in a large, cold room in the Cavendish Laboratory. A tall, skinny man sits alone at a table, playing with cardboard cutouts he made the night before. Suddenly he sees something that has never been seen before, something that can never be unseen again. Two of his cutouts, put together, are the same shape as the two other cutouts put together. This, he begins to realise, is the secret of life. You could string together combinations of the four “bases” in any order on one of the two strands of DNA for an infinite length, and because of the shape-fitting effect, that order would be faithfully reproduced in negative on the other strand. Life’s ability to copy itself was explained.
That man was Jim Watson. He was joined by Francis Crick about an hour later. Crick had already done key calculations that told them they were looking for a double helix with chains running in opposite directions and he now saw another reason that the cutout base pairs had to be right: they fitted into the helices at just the angle that he had calculated. But however you replay the tape, Watson is always alone when the penny first drops. It was base-pairing, not the double helix per se, that was the great discovery.
Yet Watson (below) and Crick could never have made the discovery without standing on the shoulders of many others. Without the intervention of Jerry Donohue, an American post-doc, they would have used the wrong models of bases. Without…