In 1944, three scientists working at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research proved that it was the threadlike fibers of DNA, present in all cells, that were the chemical basis of heredity. This discovery was compared to the findings of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin in its scientific impact. It launched a new era in genetics.
This discovery was expanded and deepened by additional Rockefeller-funded work. Progress in X-ray imaging, for instance, and in understanding the nucleotides in DNA, was propelled by Rockefeller grants. New tools and understandings like these laid the groundwork for the 1953 discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick of the double helical structure of DNA (which won them the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine). Indeed, the very Cambridge lab where Watson and Crick conducted their experiments owed its advanced state to the Rockefeller Foundation, according to researchers who worked there. Rockefeller grants funded many of the lab’s assistants. They also made possible the purchase of X-ray diffraction equipment that was central to the mapping of DNA.
Decoding DNA was of course the keystone to understanding how cells are controlled and how they multiply and mutate. That kicked off the subsequent revolution in genetics, whose potential for changing medicine has yet to unfold in its most dramatic forms.
- George Beadle, “The Role of Foundations in the Development of Modern Biology,” in U.S. Philanthropic Foundations (Harper & Row, 1967)
- “When was DNA proved to be the chemical basis of heredity?”, web.archive.org/web/20050404113820/http://www.rockefeller.edu/discovery/dna/index.php