In 1869, Johann Friedrich Miescher discovered a new substance in the nucleus of living cells. The substance, which he called nuclein, is now known as DNA, yet both Miescher’s name and his theoretical ideas about nuclein are all but forgotten. This paper traces the trajectory of Miescher’s reception in the historiography of genetics. To his critics, Miescher was a “contaminator,” whose preparations were impure. Modern historians portrayed him as a “confuser,” whose misunderstandings delayed the development of molecular biology. Each of these portrayals reflects the disciplinary context in which Miescher’s work was evaluated. Using archival sources to unearth Miescher’s unpublished speculations—including an analogy between the hereditary material and language, and a speculation that a series of asymmetric carbon atoms could account for hereditary variation—this paper clarifies the ways in which the past was judged through the lens of contemporary concerns. It also shows how organization, structure, function, and information were already being considered when nuclein was first discovered nearly 150 years ago.
|Number of pages||34|
|Journal||Journal of the History of Biology|
|Early online date||10 Jun 2020|
|State||Published - 1 Sep 2020|
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was supported by Israel Science Foundation grant 1128/15 to Oren Harman and Ehud Lamm and the Austrian Science Fund grant W 1228-G18 to Sophie Veigl. Many thanks to Susanne Grulich of Universität Basel for her assistance with unearthing the materials discussed in this paper. The authors thank the reviewers and the editors of this journal for their invaluable suggestions and assistance.
© 2020, Springer Nature B.V.
- Historiography of genetics
- History of biology
- Knowledge transfer