Friedrich Miescher’s Discovery in the Historiography of Genetics: From Contamination to Confusion, from Nuclein to DNA

Sophie Juliane Veigl, Oren Harman, Ehud Lamm

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9 Scopus citations


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 Using archival sources to unearth Miescher’s unpublished speculations—including an analogy between the hereditary material and language, and a speculation that a series of asymmetric carbon atoms could account for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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)451-484
Number of pages34
JournalJournal of the History of Biology
Issue number3
Early online date10 Jun 2020
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, Springer Nature B.V.


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.

FundersFunder number
Austrian Science FundW 1228-G18
Israel Science Foundation1128/15


    • Biochemistry
    • Chromatin
    • DNA
    • Disciplines
    • Discovery
    • Historiography of genetics
    • History of biology
    • Knowledge transfer
    • Replication
    • Stereochemistry


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