How the Media First Missed the Story of DNA's Discovery

Roundup: Talking About History

Dennis Overbye, NYT News Service (August 2, 2004):

Just exactly when the readers of The New York Times first heard about the double helix is a mystery, and there is a lesson in that.

If journalism is the first draft of history, as the saying goes, then it’s often a terrible draft. A case in point happened in 1953, when Francis Crick, a graduate student at Cambridge University, and Dr. James D. Watson, a young biochemist, published a short paper in the journal Nature proposing that DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule seemingly responsible for heredity, had a double helix structure.

By suggesting that DNA could split into complementary strands, the two men had established the first plausible physical basis for the encoding and transmission of genes, literally the secret of life. It was biology’s biggest moment in the 20th century.

One might expect that such an accomplishment would be trumpeted in newspaper headlines around the world. But this was before the days when every advance in science, marginal or not, was preceded by a drumroll of missives from press agents. In fact, the double helix was a dog that did not bark, at least not at first, in this or any other newspaper.

The two men made their discovery on February 28, 1953. Their paper appeared on April 25. Major newspapers in Britain did not notice until May 15, when Sir Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory, where Watson and Crick did their work, gave a talk in London. That occasioned an article in The News Chronicle of London.

The news reached readers of The New York Times the next day -- maybe. Victor K. McElheny, in researching his new biography, Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution, found a clipping of a six-paragraph Times article written from London and dated May 16, with the headline “Form of ‘Life Unit’ in Cell Is Scanned.”

Yet a search of The Times’ databases could find no trace of it. The logical, if galling, conclusion is that the article ran in an early edition and was then pulled to make space for news deemed more important.

On June 13 The Times did run an article that called DNA “a substance as important to biologists as uranium is to nuclear physicists.” Datelined London, the article missed the fact that Watson had given a double helix talk a week before only a train ride from New York, at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, McElheny pointed out.

Although Crick was asked to be on a BBC program that fall, the double helix received scant mention for the rest of the year, according to McElheny.

Biologists hardly did any better at recognizing that their universe had changed. Of 20 articles on DNA that year in Nature, only seven mentioned the double helix, according to an analysis published last month in the journal by Dr. Robert C. Olby, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh....

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