Historical Perspectives On Contemporary Issues

The DNA Papers

This podcast series illuminates the history of seminal discoveries and research through which we learned about the molecule that has been dubbed as the “secret of life” itself: DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid.

This series progresses from the first discovery of the substance in 1869 to the early 1980s, when scientists devised the techniques for determining the sequence of the units that make up a DNA molecule. Each episode features scholars from different fields: the history of science, the specific areas of science pertinent to the paper being discussed, other humanities and social sciences—such as philosophy, anthropology, sociology of science and STS—and science communication. 

Click on the “Resources” tab for information for researchers as well as further readings.

Jump to:
Episode 1 on Friedrich Miescher and the discovery of nuclein.
Episode 2 on Albrecht Kossel and the discovery of the building blocks of nuclein.

Check back monthly for new episodes.


Photo Credit: DNA Origami. Prof. Mark Szczelkun, University of Bristol.

Neeraja Sankaran

Neeraja Sankaran introduces the series, which she organized and moderates. She is a historian of science and medicine at the National Centre for Biological Sciences-TIFR, Bangalore, India. Her work focuses on the recent and near-contemporary history of biomedical sciences. An independent scholar since 2015, she has held both research and teaching positions at universities in different parts of the world, including the United States, Egypt, South Korea, India, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

See also a collection of Resources.

Closed-captioning available on YouTube.

Recorded October 4, 2022



Friedrich Miescher

The first episode of the DNA papers goes back to the nineteenth century when a young Swiss doctoral student, searching for the secrets of life by delving into the chemistry of cells, stumbled on to a hitherto unknown new chemical substance localized in the nucleus of pus cells. He named the substance nuclein; we now recognize it by the commonly used acronym for its chemical name: DNA. Friedrich Miescher reported his discovery in “Uber Die Chemische Zusammensetzung Der Eiterzellen.” [On the chemical composition of pus cells] Medizinisch-Chemische Untersuchungen 4 (1871): 441–60.

Joining us to discuss the significance of Miescher and his discovery are:

See also a collection of Resources.

Closed captioning available on YouTube.

Recorded January 17, 2022

Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

In episode 2 of the DNA Papers we discuss a cluster of papers from the late nineteenth century by the German physiological chemist Albrecht Kossel, who studied the chemical make-up of nuclein, and found and named its nitrogen-containing building blocks, probably best recognized today by their labels A, T, G, and C. Although the work was deemed sufficiently important by his contemporaries to garner him the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1910, Kossel remains a lesser known figure in the history of DNA, especially among non-German speakers. The papers featured in this discussion are:

Kossel, Albrecht. 1879. “Ueber Das Nucleïn Der Hefe.” [On the nuclein of yeast] Zeitschrift Für Physiologische Chemie 3: 284–91.
Kossel, Albrecht. 1882. “Zur Chemie Des Zellkerns.” [On the chemistry of the nuclei of cells] Zeitschrift Für Physiologische Chemie 7: 7–22.
Kossel, Albrecht. 1886. “Weitere Beiträge Zur Chemie Des Zellkerns.” [Further contributions on the chemistry of the nuclei of cells] Zeitschrift Für Physiologische Chemie 10: 248–64.

Sharing  their perspectives on the Kossel’s contributions and their importance are:

Pnina Abir-Am, Brandeis University
Mark Lorch, University of Hull
Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

See also a collection of Resources.

Closed captioning available on YouTube.

Recorded on July 12, 2022.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

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Insights from the Collections
The Consortium's collections provide many opportunities to learn more about the history of genetic science. 
Our cross-institutional search tool allows researchers to investigate materials across multiple institutions from a single interface. With millions of catalog records of rare books and manuscripts and thousands of finding aids, the Consortium's search hub offers scholars and the public the ability to identify and locate relevant materials.
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Selected Bibliography
Though by no means a comprehensive list, here are some suggestions:
Portugal, Franklin H., and Jack S. Cohen. A Century of DNA: A History of the Discovery of the Structure and Function of the Genetic Substance. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1977.
Judson, H. F. The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology. Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Olby, Robert Cecil. The Path to the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA. Courier Dover Publications, 1994.
Lagerkvist, Ulf. DNA Pioneers and Their Legacy. Yale University Press New Haven, CT, 1998.
Nelkin, Dorothy, and M. Susan Lindee. The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon  [With a New Preface and Conclusion]. University of Michigan Press, 2004.
Altman, Sidney. “Masters of DNA.” Journal of Biological Chemistry 280, no. 15 (April 15, 2005): 14361–65. https://doi.org/10.1074/jbc.X400012200.
Williams, Gareth. Unravelling the Double Helix: The Lost Heroes of DNA. Hachette UK, 2019.
Episode 1
Greenstein, Jesse P. 1943. “Friedrich Miescher, 1844-1895.” The Scientific Monthly 57 (6): 523–32.
Buess, Heinrich. 1953. “Joh. Friedrich Miescher and the Contribution of Basle Physicians to the Biology of the Nineteenth Century.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 25 (4): 250–61.
Mirsky, Alfred E. 1968. “The Discovery of DNA.” Scientific American 218 (6): 78–90.
Olby, Robert. 1969. “Cell Chemistry in Miescher’s Day.” Medical History 13 (4): 377–82.
James, J. 1970. “Miescher’s Discoveries of 1869: A Centenary of Nuclear Chemistry.” Journal of Histochemistry & Cytochemistry 18 (3): 217–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/18.3.217.
Dahm, Ralf. 2005. “Friedrich Miescher and the Discovery of DNA.” Developmental Biology 278 (2): 274–88.
Dahm, Ralf. 2008. “Discovering DNA: Friedrich Miescher and the Early Years of Nucleic Acid Research.” Human Genetics 122 (6): 565–81.
Dahm, Ralf. 2008. “The First Discovery of DNA.” American Scientist 96 (4): 320–27.
Dahm, Ralf. 2010. “A Link in the Chain: Friedrich Miescher (1844-1895).” Karger Gazette, 3
Dahm, Ralf. 2010. “From Discovering to Understanding: Friedrich Miescher’s Attempts to Uncover the Function of DNA.” EMBO Reports 11 (3): 153–60. https://doi.org/10.1038/embor.2010.14.
Dahm, Ralf. 2021. “Isolating the Instructions for Life.” American Scientist 109: 134–35.
Dahm, Ralf, and Mita Banerjee. 2019. “How We Forgot Who Discovered DNA: Why It Matters How You Communicate Your Results.” BioEssays 41 (4): 1900029.
Lamm, Ehud, Oren Harman, and Sophie Juliane Veigl. 2020. “Before Watson and Crick in 1953 Came Friedrich Miescher in 1869.” Genetics 215 (2): 291–96. https://doi.org/10.1534/genetics.120.303195.
Veigl, Sophie Juliane, Oren Harman, and Ehud Lamm. 2020. “Friedrich Miescher’s Discovery in the Historiography of Genetics: From Contamination to Confusion, from Nuclein to DNA.” Journal of the History of Biology 53 (3): 451–84. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-020-09608-3.
Hall, Kersten, and Neeraja Sankaran. 2021. “DNA Translated: Friedrich Miescher’s Discovery of Nuclein in Its Original Context.” The British Journal for the History of Science 54 (1): 99–107. https://doi.org/10.1017/S000708742000062X.
Episode 2
Kossel, Albrecht. “The Chemical Composition of the Cell.” The Harvey Lectures 7 (1912): 33–51.
Kossel, Albrecht. “Nobel Lecture: The Chemical Composition of the Cell Nucleus.” NobelPrize.org, December 12, 1910. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1910/kossel/lecture/.
Abir-Am, Pnina. Review of A Century of DNA: A History of the Discovery of the Structure and Function of the Genetic Substance, by Franklin H. Portugal and Jack S. Cohen. Isis 69, no. 3 (1978): 449–50.
Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. “A Short History of Molecular Biology.” History and Philosophy of Science and Technology 2 (2010): 1–31.
Framm, Edith, and Joachim Framm. Albrecht Kossel und die DNA: Ein Nobelpreisträger aus Mecklenburg [Albrecht Kossel and DNA: A Nobel Laureate from Mecklenburg]. Wismar, 2019.
Lorch, Mark. Biochemistry: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.