A fine history of the first 85 years of DNA and the “stories of the people who became entangled with it and who were variously enthralled, seduced or infuriated.”
Most readers have heard of James Watson and Francis Crick, but their 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA followed almost a century of biological research. Williams (Emeritus, Medicine/Univ. of Bristol; A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness, 2016, etc.) begins by noting the significant work of 19th-century Swiss physicist Friedrich Miescher that laid the foundation. Although his isolation of nuclein (nucleic acids) was significant, no one realized that it was earth-shaking. Living cells teem with proteins, which are complex molecules. At this time, no one knew how heredity worked. Gregor Mendel’s basic rules of genetics, announced in the 1860s, remained unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1875 that German biologist Oscar Hertwig first saw a single sperm penetrate an egg and fuse with the nucleus, which then began to divide. Brilliant, obsessive men (and the occasional woman) march through the narrative. Genes and chromosomes make their appearances after 1900. Then X-ray crystallography, the key to deciphering atomic structure, explodes onto the scene. In the 1930s, studies hinting that DNA figured in heredity made little impression. In 1944, proof from Oswald Avery’s lab did not achieve iconic status for another decade, when others confirmed it and Watson and Crick worked their magic. Williams’ steady stream of biographies includes plenty of key figures unknown, he admits, even to him. They made significant discoveries (or barely missed) that helped to clarify the mechanism of heredity. There is no shortage of villains, tragedies, and missed opportunities, but readers will take comfort in knowing that it turns out well. They will enjoy lucid, opinionated writing and the useful (often neglected) who’s who and timeline at the beginning and generous glossary at the end.
A superb chronicle of a scientific struggle with a happy ending.