It Was 1869

In response to:

Their Man On Earth from the March 6, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

The review by J.M. Coetzee of the book The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch [NYR, March 6] criticizes the author for stating that DNA was discovered in 1869. This is in fact true. This substance was discovered, one year before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, by Friedrich Miescher from Basel, while working as what we would now call a post-doc at Tübingen in the laboratory of Friedrich Hoppe-Seyler, the leading physiological chemist of his time. The unlikely material that Miescher used was pus, of which a fresh supply was available daily in the Tübingen surgical clinic. Miescher called the new compound “nuclein.” Hoppe-Seyler was so intrigued by this discovery that he delayed publication for two years while he himself repeated and confirmed Miescher’s experiments (something highly unlikely in our hurried times). There are many memorable discussions of Miescher’s discovery. The most moving that Iknow are on the occasion of the centenary of the discovery of DNA by Alfred E. Mirsky (“The Discovery of DNA,” in the June 1968 issue of the Scientific American, pp. 78-88), and by Erwin Chargaff (“Preface to a Grammar of Biology: A hundred years of nucleic acid research,” in Science, May 14, 1971, pp. 637-642). Ashort historical summary is found in the 1931 classic Nucleic Acids by Phoebus Aaron Levene and Lawrence W. Bass, pp. 239-244. I cite these three publications not only because they are beautifully written, but also, as befits your publication, because they all originated inNew York City. There is an additional reason for quoting the book by Levene and Bass. The eminent chemist Phoebus Levene started his studies of chemistry in St. Petersburg, where his chemistry professor was a cer-tain Alexander Borodin, author of a well-regarded chemistry textbook. J.M. Coetzee, author of, among many other books, The Master of Petersburg, might get a kick out of this highly indirect genealogy of DNA.

Herbert C. Friedmann
Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
The University of Chicago