James Dewey Watson (b. 1928)

Science Service, Up Close: Before DNA Made Them Famous - Crick, Wilkins, and Watson

By the 1960s, Science Service had been acquiring photographs of scientists, obscure as well as famous, for over four decades.

Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins (1916-2004)

By the 1960s, Science Service had been acquiring photographs of scientists, obscure as well as famous, for over four decades. Portraits of Edison or Einstein were always in demand, but experience had also shown that bright, accomplished young people might someday be awarded a major prize or make a discovery deemed newsworthy.

James Dewey Watson (b. 1928) In early 1953, when Francis Crick (1916-2004), Maurice Wilkins (1916-2004), and James Watson (b. 1928) first presented their model of the double helix structure of DNA, most of the press had paid little attention. Later that spring, their article in the April 25, 1953, issue of Nature ("Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid") opened the gates for research on the basic building blocks of life. DNA soon became part of the world's lexicon, a subject for serious journalism, fictional plots, cartoons, music, and art as well as science. Crick, Wilkins, and Watson were on the road to fame.

By the time Science Service acquired these photographs of the trio, in conjunction with the 1960 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, they had already enjoyed considerable success. Crick was at Cambridge University, and Watson had achieved a professorship at Harvard. Wilkins was still at Kings College, London, where his colleague Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) had shared with him the famous Photograph 51, which the men later acknowledged had influenced their thinking about the helical structure. Two years later, Crick, Wilkins, and Watson were joint recipients of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, their names and faces recognizable around the world.

Francis Harry Compton Crick (1916-2004) Sixty-five years ago, no one could have imagined the ripples of those discoveries. Millions of ordinary people submit DNA samples to trace their ancestry. Perpetrators face justice because they left minute traces of their selves at a crime scene. Genomic testing of tumors allows more precisely targeted cancer treatment. And scientists at the Smithsonian and elsewhere use traces of DNA preserved in natural history collections of feathers, bones, and scat to understand the diversity of non-human species. Information about history, behavior, life, past and present–all caught in the spirals of a helix.

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