Discovery of DNA: Feb. 28, 1953

Like a lot of other scientists at the time, Cambridge professors James Watson and Francis Crick have spent several years trying to unlock the secret of deoxyribose nucleic acid, better known as DNA.  It’s a molecule thought to contain the human genetic code, but researchers have been unable to figure out how it did so and how that code is passed on from one generation to the next.

On this February morning, they finally figure out DNA’s double helix structure that allows it to “unzip” to create copies of itself.  Soon afterwards, at a nearby pub called The Eagle, Crick announces to other professors that he and Watson have “found the secret of life.”  When Watson  gets home that night, he tells his wife that “we seem to have made a big discovery,” but she was not impressed because she had heard him say that before.

But it is a huge discovery.  Two months later, they publish a one-page report on their finding in the journal Nature, including a schematic drawing of the double helix by Crick’s wife, Odile. For their breakthrough, which becomes the basis for genetic research, and later medical treatments and even criminal investigations, the pair is awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962.  A few years later, however, they have a falling-out over Watson’s book, The Double Helix. Crick doesn’t like the way his former partner portrays him and considers the book a betrayal of their friendship.