When I went to Oxford in October 1952 to work on bacteriophage with Hinshelwood, it
was the intention of seeing whether physical chemistry could provide help in solving
biological problems. I should have gone to study molecular biology but the subject
did not yet exist. From my past experience in cytology and cytogenetics, I knew that
DNA was the material basis of heredity and that RNA was important for protein synthesis.
I had read Schrödinger's book (What is Life? Cambridge; 1944) but, more importantly,
I had read von Neumann's article (in Cerebral Mechanisms in Behaviour: the Hixon symposium.
Edited by Jeffress L A: Hafner Publishing Company, New York; 1951) on the theory of
self-reproducing machines. Beyond this, I had many nebulous ideas on how nucleic acids
might exert their function and on how we might test them, including one ridiculous
proposal that the structure of nucleic acids could be solved by dichroism measurements
of DNA complexed with acridine dyes. I met Jack Dunitz and Leslie Orgel in Oxford
and we had many interesting discussion on these topics. It was Jack who told me that
the structure of DNA had probably been solved by two people in Cambridge, Francis
Crick and Jim Watson, and I can remember trying to understand Jack's explanation of
Francis' work on helical diffraction. On a chilly morning in April 1953, with Jack,
Leslie and another crystallographer, I went to Cambridge and saw the model and met
Francis and Jim. It was the most exciting day of my life. The double helix was a revelatory
experience; for me, everything fell into place and my future scientific life was decided
there and then. When the paper appeared a few weeks later, it was not well received
by the establishment, composed largely of professional biochemists. They could not
see, at the time, how profoundly it would change their subject by offering us a framework
for studying the chemistry of biological information.
Sydney Brenner. "A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid" by J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick. Nature 1953, 171:737-738. Appears in "Outstanding Papers in Biology," selected and introduced
by Sydney Brenner. 1953.
"To have success in science, you need some luck. Without it, I would never have become
interested in genetics. I was 17, almost 3 years into college, and after a summer
in the North Woods, I came back to the University of Chicago and spotted the tiny
book What is Life by the theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In that little gem, Schrödinger said
the essence of life was the gene. Up until then, I was interested in birds. But then
I thought, well, if the gene is the essence of life, I want to know more about it.
And that was fateful because, otherwise, I would have spent my life studying birds
and no one would have heard of me."
James Watson. James Watson, "Succeeding in Science: Some Rules of Thumb", Science, 261, 24 (September 1993): 1812. September 1993.
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