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60th anniversary of discovery of DNA structure

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By | From the Collections

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Crick and Watson’s paper on the structure of DNA in Nature. In the published paper their assessment of the discovery was subtle though crucial:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

The anniversary has prompted a recent flurry of activity in the sale rooms: a handwritten letter from Francis Crick to his 12 year old son, Michael, sold on 11th April for a record-breaking $5.3 million at a New York City auction. The letter, written a month before Crick and Watson’s Nature paper in 1953, conveys more of the excitement that Crick truly felt at the discovery:

Letter from Crick to his son,Michael

Copy of letter from Crick to his son in March 1953

The Wellcome Library holds a copy of the 7-page letter as part of the Francis Crick archive. The simplicity with which Crick describes the “beautiful” structure offers a beginners guide to the complex discovery:

“DNA can be thought of roughly as a very long chain with flat bits sticking out. The flat bits are called the ‘bases'”

Crick also includes a sketch of the structure for the benefit of his 12 year old son:

Sketch from Crick's letter to his son

Sketch of DNA from Crick’s letter to his son Michael

The Library has drafts of the original Crick and Watson paper, and the accompanying papers by Wilkins, and Franklin and Gosling (all published in Nature on 25th April 1953), available digitally as part of the Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics resource. In a draft of the Franklin and Gosling paper, which is from the Wilkins’ archive, Wilkins was struck by how rapidly it had been written:

Draft paper by Franklin and Gosling

Draft paper by Franklin and Gosling with annotations by Wilkins

The digitised archives of Crick, Watson, and Wilkins are free to access as part of the Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics online resource. To view online, you will need a Wellcome Library member login, or you can login with a Twitter, Facebook, Google or OpenID account. The login screen will appear when you open a digitised item from the catalogue or another webpage.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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