The “discovery” of how DNA is constructed is a complicated story best told elsewhere; but, the two men who concluded just how it is done are number 34 in our list of the 50 most influential doctors in history: Francis Crick and James Watson—except neither of them are medical doctors; so perhaps, shouldn’t be included in this particular list at all.
WHAT they did—everyone knows. HOW they did it, we’ve recently discovered makes us raise our eyebrows. And WHO did it… well, let’s just say that their personal beliefs and actions are surprises that make many search for others to emulate [perhaps even put the arrogance of NFL players to shame].
The two were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for “discoveries concerning the molecular structure” of DNA, NOT the substance itself—as the public often parrots when asked.
The history since their award has had some controversy. It’s true that the full formulation didn’t occur in a flash of light all at once; but rather came from results of many years of research by many people—who, some feel, should share in some of the “glory.”
None-the-less, Watson and Crick were the ones agonizing over the problem and in whose minds the final piecing of the puzzle came completely together from the evidence. Discovery of DNA and many of its “required parameters that must be explained” were done by others but it was these guys who put it all together—over several others who were trying to beat them to it but who were wrong.
The STRUCTURE of DNA
A “Discovery” Against Advice
The components of DNA were being discovered and “parameters” were known but both Watson and Crick knew that the answer for how it was all put together was to be able to build an actual scale model of the elements and linkages.
Others, including Linus Pauling, were doing it but were wrong and things didn’t fit. It was a chemistry problem but x-ray crystallography was the domain of physics people—who didn’t understand chemistry.
The two began to build the model but were hampered by being given an erroneous understanding of how a specific molecule was bound together. Then they were told by their superiors to “stop building models.”
Waiting for their detractor to be replaced, they finally succeeded in flipping enough things around in their model to find that they actually fit—and, complied with all the known parameters of DNA.
The building block of life was NOT a protein as some believed but a series of nucleic acids fit together in specific orders to “code” for all other bodily tissues and development. The characterization of DNA opened the door for truly amazing discoveries in genetics and medicine.
James Watson (1928 – )
Early Life and Education
In Chicago on April 6th, 1928, James Dewey Watson was born to James Watson and Jean (Mitchell), both immigrants to the U.S.—his father from England and his mother from Ireland. Neither were particularly active in their countries’ religions, Episcopalian and Catholic, which seemed to fit the boy James quite well.
He attended public schools on Chicago’s south side. His father’s hobby of bird watching fascinated him into considering a major in ornithology. He appeared on TV’s “Quiz Kids” answering questions for his school and eventually took advantage of the Universities liberal admission policies to enter with a scholarship at the age of 15.
Reading a book about “life” he changed his major to genetics, now intensely interested about the specifics of how cells and people replicate themselves. He received a BS in Zoology from the Univ. of Chicago in 1947 and transferred to Indiana University to be associated with the 1946 Nobel Prize winner for the “description of the heredity molecule.” He received his PhD in 1950 and began deliberately seeking out places to work who were seeking answers to genetics and genes.
He did postdoctoral research in Copenhagen in 1950 and eventually stumbled upon X-ray diffraction which, something told him, was the answer to his DNA questions. That took him, at 23-years-old, to England and the Cavendish Laboratory where he met X-ray crystallographers Wilkins and Franklin and eventually Crick.
Franklin’s excellent X-ray photographs (to which they had gained access without her permission) were critical to the correct solution. The four scientists announced the structure of DNA in articles which appeared together in the same issue of the journal Nature.
The indifference to religion his parents taught him as a child seemed to blossom into atheism and agnosticism as an adult; and was a significant factor in his friendship with Crick who had similar views. Together, both turned more anti-Christian in their views.
He taught at Harvard in the biology department between 1956 and 1976 with several promotions but claimed they refused a $1,000 raise after he won the Nobel Prize.
His award-winning book, “The Double Helix,” was published commercially after Harvard Press reversed its decision to publish it following objections from the other Nobel Prize winners over the highly personal way the story was told.
He became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) promoting research in cancer. He made Cold Springs Harbor his home and his two sons were born there. He became president of CSHL then was appointed chancellor until resigning in 2007 after being suspended for making public his views that there was a link between intelligence and race.
He was appointed head of the human genome project at the NIH between 1988 and 1992 when he vehemently disagreed with the new director, Bernadine Healy, who wanted to acquire patents on gene sequences. He decried any “ownership of the laws of nature.” He left within weeks of the announcement that the NIH would be applying for patents on brain-specific cDNAs stating: “The nations of the world must see that the human genome belongs to the world’s people, as opposed to its nations.”
His personal genome was sequenced for him and he became the second person to publish it online in 2007 in order to “encourage the development of an era of personalized medicine, in which information contained in our genomes can be used to identify and prevent disease and to create individualized medical therapies”.
James Watson was a geneticist, assisted in discovering the double helix of DNA and won a Nobel Prize
Born: April 6th, 1928
Died: (living Dec 2017)
Education: PhD, 1050 Indiana University
Known for: Elucidating the mechanics of how DNA is structured and replicated, strong anti-Christian views
Books: Many science books, including the textbook Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965) and his bestselling book The Double Helix (1968)
Parents: James Watson and Jean (Mitchell)
Francis Crick (1916 – 2004)
Early Life and Education
It was an irreverence and non-belief in God and Christianity that drew Francis Crick and James Watson together—that, and a quest to define the “building blocks of life.”
Francis Harry Compton Crick was born on June 8th, 1916 in Weston Favell, Northampton England, to Harry and Annie Elizabeth Crick (Wilkins). His father and uncle ran the family’s boot and shoe factory but his grandfather, Walter Drawbridge Crick was an amateur naturalist who wrote a survey of local foraminifera, corresponded with Charles Darwin and had two gastropods named after him.
Francis was bookish and attracted to science. At about 12, he told his parents he didn’t want to go to church anymore and didn’t.
He learned photography, glass blowing and chemical experiments from his uncle in a shed across the street and transferred to the Northampton Grammar School at 8 years of age to be taught by a “Miss Holding” who “made everything interesting” and all future years of schooling only “satisfactory” in his estimation.
At 14 he went (on scholarship) to the Mill Hill School in London to study math, physics and chemistry and with a friend shared the Walter Knox Prize for Chemistry. He graduated with a BS in physics from University College London. He started his PhD there too but was interrupted by WWII when a bomb fell through the roof and ruined his experimental apparatus.
In the war he helped design a new mine that was effective against German minesweepers and at age 31 joined the exodus of a group of physical scientists who undertook biology research—and bringing of bit of arrogance with him. He did eventually earn his PhD degree from Cambridge University’s Gonville and Caius College in 1953.
Eventually he ended up at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge and joined the world of scientific, cut-throat, intrigue with Sir Lawrence Bragg, who had won the 1915 Nobel Prize and was currently racing against both the American Linus Pauling and the British scientist Randall at Kings College—with both of whom he held grudges.
Crick met Watson at Cavendish and brought with him an existing friendship with Maurice Wilkins who worked “behind the lines” so to speak at Kings College. All of their goals were to make sense of the already existing and expanding knowledge about proteins and DNA. At the time, most thought that DNA was uninteresting and believed that Pauling’s alpha-helix proteins were where research would be successful.
It was x-ray crystallography (some of which Watson and Crick obtained without authorization) and simply building models which eventually cracked the “blueprint” of how the simple DNA molecule was structured in a way that allowed it to carry the codes for not only life but for replication as well. The rest, as they say, is history.
The discovery of the structure of DNA is so filled with intrigue and rife that more is documented about “who said what when” about it than for any other discovery in medicine. Linus Pauling, the second closest person to its discovery, was prevented from traveling to England by the US government due to his political activities. Rosalind Franklin actually had expertise in chemistry that neither Watson or Crick had—and had actually performed the definitive test that cracked the code but didn’t realize it.
Crick married twice, fathered three children and (like Watson) was outspoken in his atheism, agnosticism and obsessive support for the theories of Darwin. He opined that “life will shortly be created in a test tube.” He wanted “Darwin Day” as a British national holiday.
He lived in New York, went back to Cambridge for a while then moved permanently to California. In 1960, Crick accepted an honorary fellowship at Churchill College, Cambridge, one factor being that the new college did not have a chapel. Some time later a large donation was made to establish a chapel and the College Council decided to accept it. Crick resigned his fellowship in protest.
He died of colon cancer on July 28th, 2004 at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Thornton Hospital in La Jolla California, was cremated and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean.
He firmly criticized creationism and advised the US Supreme Court in a case (along with others) that “creation-science simply has no place in the public school science classroom.” On eugenics he advocated that “wealthy parents would be encouraged to have more children.”
About Christianity he said: “I do not respect Christian beliefs… think they are ridiculous… if we could get rid of them we could more easily… find out what the world is all about.” He joked: “Christianity may be OK between consenting adults in private but should not be taught to young children.” He wrote that the human “soul” would eventually be programmed into a computer.
After his death rumors of his using LSD surfaced, which weren’t refuted, but shown not to be realistic back when DNA structure was discovered in the 50’s as his detractors were claiming.
A seven-page, handwritten letter Crick wrote to his son at a British boarding school on 19 March 1953 explained the discovery and was sold for $6,059,750 at auction—the largest amount ever paid for a letter.
Francis Harry Compton Crick was a physicist, chemist, molecular biologist
Born: June 8th, 1916 in Weston Favell, Northampton England
Died: 28 July 2004, San Diego California
Education: PhD, Cambridge University’s Gonville and Caius College in 1953.
Known for: discovering the structure of DNA, work on RNA
Parents: Harry and Annie Elizabeth Crick (Wilkins)
Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin
Something should be said about the other two players in the discoveries that Watson and Crick were given note for.
Maurice Wilkins was born in New Zealand and educated in the United Kingdom. By sharing his X-ray diffraction images with Crick and Watson, Wilkins contributed to the understanding of DNA structure.
Rosalind Franklin’s pioneering research was an important factor in the discovery of the structure of DNA, although her contribution has been in part overlooked. Franklin’s accomplished career in molecular biology was tragically cut short by her death from ovarian cancer at the age of 37.
Of great importance to the model building effort of Watson and Crick was Rosalind Franklin’s understanding of basic chemistry which neither Watson nor Crick had. In fact, it was not only her crystallography work that gave the answer but she was the teacher who instructed them that: the hydrophilic phosphate-containing backbones of the nucleotide chains of DNA should be positioned so as to interact with water molecules on the outside of the molecule while the hydrophobic bases should be packed into the core. Franklin shared this chemical knowledge with Watson and Crick when she pointed out to them that their first model – from 1951, with the phosphates inside – was obviously wrong.
20 Posts in This Series
- 31 - E. Donnall Thomas & Joseph Murray, Bone Marrow Transplants
- 32 - Elizabeth Blackwell, women in medicine – 29 Jan 2018
- 33 - Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, stages of grief – 5 Jan 2018
- 34 - Watson & Crick, DNA – 2 Dec 2017
- 35 - Mahmut Gazi Yaşargil, Micro-Surgery – 24 Oct 2017
- 36 - George Papanicolaou, Cytopathology, Cancer – 29 Sep 2017
- 37 - Dr. James Parkinson, Parkinson's Disease – 1 Sep 2017
- 38 - Dr. John Snow, cholera – 20 Aug 2017
- 39 - Dr. Joseph Kirsner, GI Joe – 27 Jul 2017
- 40 - Lawrence (Larry) Einhorn, chemotherapy – 16 Jun 2017
- 41 - Robert Koch, modern bacteriology – 21 Mar 2017
- 42 - Stanley Dudrick, TPN – 28 Feb 2017
- 43 - Stanley Prusiner, neurodegenerative diseases – 25 Jan 2017
- 44 - Victor McKusick, medical genetics – 3 Jan 2017
- 45 - Virginia Apgar, anesthesiology & newborn care – 12 Nov 2016
- 46 - William Harvey, circulation – 12 Oct 2016
- 47 - Zora Janžekovič, burns – 26 Sep 2016
- 48 - Helen Taussig, blue babies – 3 Sep 2016
- 49 - Henry Gray, anatomy – 3 Jul 2016
- 50 - Nikolay Pirogov, field surgery – 11 Jun 2016