90th Anniversary Issue: 1950s

DNA's structure revealed and other highlights, 1950–59

Science Source

Double helix discovered
In 1953, the discovery of DNA’s structure topped Science News Letter’s top 10 stories of the year, beating out the polio vaccine and the “successful climbing of Mt. Everest.” The finding was not an instant hit, though; the initial April report in Nature of DNA’s double helix drew little notice from reporters. Perhaps it didn’t help that the research paper began with one of science’s most famous understatements: “This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” Science News Letter announced the discovery on December 19, just in time to make the news of the year. The article added its own understatement, noting that the structure “is creating about as much interest and hopeful speculation in chemistry and biology as anything that has happened in many months” (12/19/53, p. 387). Watson and Crick won a Nobel Prize in 1962 with Maurice Wilkins for their work, which helped lay the foundation for molecular biology and the manipulation of genes. Erika Engelhaupt

Note: N indicates findings that went on to win a Nobel Prize.

1950 | Animal antibiotics Lederle Laboratories scientists show that lacing animal feed with trace amounts of the antibiotic aureomycin can boost the growth of livestock (4/22/50, p. 243).

1951 | Polio virus Harvard scientists use polio virus grown in a test tube to vaccinate mice, a key step in developing a vaccine for people (9/8/51, p. 147). N

1951 | Cholesterol Physicians link athero­sclerosis to the circulation of large fatty particles in the blood and suggest that a low-cholesterol diet could prevent the condition (6/16/51, p. 371).

1953 | Double helix James Watson and Francis Crick present their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA (12/19/53, p. 387). N

1954 | New sedative Chlorpromazine, developed to treat nausea and vomiting, may help sedate mental patients (4/3/54, p. 213; 6/19/54, p. 387).

1954 | Neutrino found Frederick Reines and Clyde Cowan Jr. report experimental detection of the long-sought neutrino (2/13/54, p. 99). N

1955 | Smoke effects Physicians report that smoking harms the heart (2/26/55, p. 133).

1955 | Tracking particles Donald Glaser reports on the first photographs taken with his new bubble chamber, a tool for recording collisions of subatomic particles (2/5/55, p. 87). N

1956 | Steroids made Scientists show how living things manufacture steroids, suggesting ways to block cholesterol formation (12/8/56, p. 355).

1957 | Particle mismatch Physicists disprove the conservation of parity, establishing that some left- and right-handed subatomic particles do not behave identically (1/26/57, p. 51). N

1957 | Sputnik The Soviet Union sends up Sputnik 1 (10/19/57, p. 243, 244, 245; 12/7/57, p. 358). Soon after, Sputnik 2 is launched with a dog (below) on board (11/9/57, p. 292).

1958 | Explorer satellites The United States launches its first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31 (2/8/58, p. 87); another (Explorer 3) finds a mysterious high-radiation environment 660 miles up (5/10/58, p. 291).

1958 | Diabetes types Henry Dolger reports that diabetes is really two diseases: type 1 with little or no insulin made, and type 2 in which the body doesn’t use insulin well (4/26/58, p. 265).

1959 | Virus reproduction A team reports that a virus can hijack a cell’s machinery for reproduction, suggesting new ways to make vaccines (5/2/59, p. 275).

1959 | Nutcracker Man In East Africa, Louis Leakey excavates the skull of the oldest known hominid at the time, Zinjanthropus boisei, now called Paranthropus boisei (12/5/59, p. 379).

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