What is Life? 1943
Watson and Crick 1953
The Irish connection
The Central Dogma
The multitude of RNAs
A guide to the Sculpture
The Donors
Learn about DNA & RNA

Charles Jencks
?What is life? 2013
The DNA family

Home Page

vert bar The Irish connection

Three scientists with strong Irish connections contributed to the work which led to the discovery of the Double Helix structure of DNA.
"If Bernal hadn't existed I wouldn't be here now!" Jim Watson, Royal Irish Academy 29 April 2013.
Erwin Schrödinger
The Austrian physicist and Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger came to Dublin in 1939, having been invited by the then Taoiseach of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, to help establish the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. He became director of the School for Theoretical Physics in 1940 and remained there for 17 years, becoming a naturalized Irish citizen in 1948, but retaining his Austrian citizenship. He wrote on numerous topics, including his explorations of unified field theory. He won the Nobel prize in Physics in 1933 for his discovery of the wave equation and insights into quantum theory.
He lived in Clontarf until 1955. It was in a series of lectures at the Institute, that Schrödinger addressed the phenomenon of life from the point of view of physics, and from first principles explained how genetic information might be stored in a molecule, and how life in many ways defied the second law of thermodynamics - unlike everything else in the universe life somehow becomes more ordered rather than the other way round.

John Desmond Bernal
John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), born in Tipperary, became an influential member of the X-ray crystallography group led by William and Lawrence Bragg at the Cavendish Laboratory. With Dorothy Hodgkin in 1934, he took the first X-ray photographs of hydrated protein crystals using the trick of bathing the crystals in their mother liquor, giving one of the first glimpses of the world of molecular structure that underlies living things. From the 1920s he applied the powerful new method of X-ray crystallography to larger and larger biochemicals, even to proteins and viruses, opening the way to the revolutionary work on DNA, and incidentally on proteins (by Kendrew and Perutz). He became the Assistant Director of the Cavendish Laboratory under Sir Lawrence Bragg before continuing his work at Birkbeck College.

Jim Watson has always pointed out that between 1953 and 1955 the structure of DNA just had to be found out. However, as he forcefully explained on the evening of the 29th April in the Royal Irish Academy, without John Bernal's vital advances in x-ray crystallography, it could have taken a further 20 to 30 years before the event took place.

Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins
Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins, was born in New Zealand in 1916, three years after his Irish parents, Edgar and Eveline, arrived there. He came from a well-known Irish academic family; his father, two uncles, his grandfather and great uncle (a Hebrew scholar and Fellow of Trinity College Dublin) were graduates of Trinity. His grandmotherís family was connected with the great Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton.
In the 1920ís the Wilkins family moved back to Dublin, intending to settle in their beloved Ireland but there were better openings in London for Edgar Wilkins, who was a doctor. Wilkins became a physics student at Cambridge and was influenced by J. D. Bernal. In 1946 at Kingís College London, he became the key pioneer in the application of X-ray crystallography to wet fibres of DNA, developing clever methods for taking the X-ray pictures. He produced the first clear evidence that DNA fibres contained crystalline and helical structures, and measured some of the basic dimensions of the helix. When Watson saw Wilkinsí evidence at a meeting in Naples in 1951, he realised that X-ray data could be used to get the DNA structure. Watson moved from Copenhagen to Cambridge, which specialised in X-ray studies, and found himself sharing an office with Francis Crick at Cambridge in the famous Cavendish Laboratory. Both turned their attention to DNA.