Quirky Minor Accidents, Major Consequences: Double-Helix Structure of DNA

The Guardian’s obituary of biophysicist Maurice Wilkins (the Nobel prizewinner (with Francis Crick and James Watson,) for his x-ray images to reveal the double-helix structure of DNA) notes,

The history of science is full of quirky minor accidents with major consequences. In 1951, Wilkins’s boss, Professor Randall, was invited to a conference on macromolecules in Naples. At short notice he asked Wilkins to take his place and, in doing so, precipitated a meeting of incalculable importance.

Wilkins went to Naples armed with taut enthusiasm for the prospects of his new type of research and with the best x-ray picture of DNA that he had so far taken. Dr James Watson, at this time touring European laboratories to find the best place to settle to study the biology of genes, was at the meeting. He was more or less on holiday, but thought that Randall might have something interesting to say, for he was a physicist of some note as well as one of the world’s few experienced biophysicists. However, Watson was immediately and permanently fired by Wilkins’s talk on the investigation of DNA structure and by the beautiful x-ray diffraction patterns revealed by his single slide. Watson said later that this contribution “stood out from the rest like a beacon.”

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