On a dull winter day, a young, gangly American and an older Briton with a booming voice strolled into the Eagle pub in Cambridge, England. The older man flamboyantly proclaimed to the patrons that he and his friend had just uncovered the secret of life.
It wasn't the demon drink talking: It was the sheer euphoria of discovery. That day -- 50 years ago today -- 24-year-old James Watson and 36-year-old Francis Crick realized they had solved one of the greatest mysteries of biology: the chemical structure of DNA, the blueprint of genetic inheritance.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
DNA -- A Feb. 28 Column One article in Section A on the history of DNA research misspelled the first name of a scientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. He is Sydney Brenner, not Sidney Brenner.
Their finding was momentous, a leap forward that science needed desperately. By the early 1950s, biologists had begun to suspect that DNA, long viewed as a rather humdrum molecule, might actually be the stuff that genes were made of.
But no one knew what DNA looked like chemically -- and so, they had no clue how the stringy substance could harbor instructions for building blue eyes and brown skin, sunflowers and snapdragons, all the floridly varied items that evolution has shaped.
Watson and Crick figured out that structure on Feb. 28, 1953, after months of fervid discussion and chemical model-building. Informed by gorgeous images of DNA crystals from their colleagues and fueled by endless cups of tea and pints of bitter, they beat out their more seasoned rivals.
Fifty years on, the biological community is kicking up its collective heels in a worldwide anniversary jamboree, clinking glasses at galas, mulling the past and future at myriad scientific meetings, rolling out the TV retrospectives and pensively rubbing their chins at exhibitions of DNA-inspired art.
Crick, a distinguished research professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, is in frail health and is remaining quietly at home in La Jolla. Watson, president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, is touring the world.
Last week saw him in Monterey at a glitzy symposium sponsored by Time magazine, reminiscing on a stage adorned with giant atomic models and movies of swirling DNA strands. Tonight, he will be in New York, dining at a celebratory gala at the Waldorf-Astoria. In April -- the month when the pair's spare, one-page paper was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature -- he will be celebrating in England and unveiling a plaque at his old watering hole, the Eagle.
The over-the-top hoopla is excusable. Watson and Crick's discovery has transformed practically every branch of medicine, biology, agriculture and pharmaceuticals.
Without understanding the structure of DNA, known in long form as deoxyribonucleic acid, there would be no biotech industry, no Human Genome Project, not a whisper of a chance for stem-cell therapy, and oceans of ignorance about the workings of our bodies in sickness and in health.
The genetic revolution that followed the finding was rapid. The structure that Watson and Crick unearthed was so elegant, so suggestive, that in less than a decade -- as a direct consequence of their work -- a string of deep mysteries about genes fell like dominoes.
Scientists deftly laid bare details of how DNA gets faithfully copied, how it mutates and evolves, how it carries a code, and how that code gets turned into proteins that build life and sustain it.
The discovery "was a complete watershed -- the great change of the last century in biology," recalled Nobel-prize-winner Sidney Brenner of the Salk Institute, who played a key role in cracking the genetic code in the years that followed.
"I know that when I saw their model for the first time ... it was like turning over a page. It was, 'Well, you can forget about everything else. Let's get on with this.' "
The story of Watson, Crick and the double helix that is DNA is about more than just a seminal leap in science -- it is also a gripping tale with a soap opera feel. The story has it all: warring colleagues, a precious prize, rivalries, secrecy, subterfuge and even a wronged woman: chemist Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray pictures of DNA crystals were key to unraveling the mystery, but who some felt was cheated of the credit she deserved.
The setting for the discovery was the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, a drab, drafty building where (as Watson recalls) one needed those endless drinks of hot tea to stay warm.
Crick had arrived there in 1949 to get his doctorate in protein structure. The American whiz kid Watson arrived in 1951, also ostensibly to study proteins.
But not really.
In truth, Watson wanted to unearth the nature of genes. He was convinced that DNA, not proteins, held the key to that ultimate mystery.
Scientists had known about genes since 1900, the year long-ignored pea-breeding studies by Austrian monk Gregor Mendel were rediscovered, launching the field of genetics.
They had known about DNA even longer -- since 1869, when Swiss biochemist Johann Friedrich Miescher, while studying the chemistry of the cell nucleus, discovered it in pus drawn from bandages used on Crimean War wounded.