Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA: A Documentary History Narrative  
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A Very Pretty Model
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When Watson told Wilkins of Pauling's mistake and his idea that DNA was helical, he was given a reward: his first look at the most recent x-ray patterns Franklin had gotten from the molecule. She had confirmed that DNA existed in two forms, a condensed dry form and an extended wet form the structure assumed when it drank up all that water. Astbury's photos, the ones Pauling had used, had been of a mixture of the two forms. Franklin's recent shots, much clearer and of only the extended form, immediately confirmed to Watson that the molecule was a helix. It also gave him several new parameters for its solution.

Pauling had already moved on to new projects - a theory of ferromagnetism and plans for a major international protein conference in Caltech the next fall - when Peter wrote him in mid-February about the English were critical of his DNA structure. "I am checking over the nucleic acid structure again, trying to refine the parameters a bit," Pauling wrote back. "I heard a rumor that Jim Watson and Crick had formulated this structure already sometime back, but had not done anything about it. Probably the rumor is exaggerated."

But Pauling sensed that something was very wrong. When he gave a seminar on his DNA structure at Caltech, the reception was cool; afterward, Delbrück told a colleague that he thought Pauling's model was not convincing. He mentioned a letter he had gotten from Watson saying that Pauling's structure contained "some very bad mistakes" and in which Watson had added, "I have a very pretty model, which is so pretty that I am surprised that no-one ever thought of it before."

Pauling wanted to know more. He quickly wrote Watson, inviting him to his fall protein conference, mentioning that he had heard from Delbrück about his DNA work, and encouraging him to keep working on the problem. "Professor Corey and I do not feel that our structure has been proven to be right," he wrote, "although we incline to think that it is."

Crick's barb about what held the molecule together led him to gather chemical precedents for the existence of adjoining negative charges in the same molecule, and he began to reason to himself that perhaps the DNA core environment was a special one that allowed the phosphates to exist as he had proposed. Meanwhile, Todd had sent him the requested samples of nucleotides, and Pauling started their x-ray analysis. He was finally laying the groundwork for a reasonable structure. But it was too late.

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Video Clip  Video: Discovering the Base Pairs. 1973. (1:04) Transcript and More Information

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Francis Crick and James Watson, walking along the the Backs, Cambridge, England. 1953.

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Letter from Linus Pauling to Peter Pauling. March 10, 1953.

"I couldn't have got anywhere without Francis....It could have been Crick without Watson, but certainly not Watson without Crick."

James Watson
April 1983
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