On the morning of February 28, 1953, two men quietly made history in the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University. Sixty years ago today, Watson and Crick discovered DNA — and changed the face of biological science in the process.
Along with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin — both unsung heroes in the discovery — the pair used X-ray diffraction to interrogate the insides of living cells. They found a twisted pair of strands of deoxyribonucleic acid, intertwined in such a way that they could pull apart, replicate themselves and pass their genetic code from old cells to new.
They had found the basic building block of all life — and they knew it. At the time, Watson declared the finding “so beautiful it had to be true”, and so it remains. They went on to publish their findings in Nature on 25 April 1953, to much fanfare. But despite their confidence, they were restrained in the way they wrote about the finding, simply stating:
“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”
That single, modest sentence is now a bedrock of biological science and medicine. So the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded to them in 1962, was richly deserved (sadly Wilkins and Franklin weren’t honored at the time, but that’s quite another story). So Watson, Crick, and everybody that helped you: congratulations on perhaps the biggest discovery biology has ever seen.