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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