Article ID: CBB137073400

Friedrich Miescher’s Discovery in the Historiography of Genetics: From Contamination to Confusion, from Nuclein to DNA (2020)


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 Using archival sources to unearth Miescher’s unpublished speculations—including an analogy between the hereditary material and language, and a speculation that a series of asymmetric carbon atoms could account for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

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Authors & Contributors
Dahm, Ralf
Fabrizio Rufo
Walsby, A. E.
Maderspacher, Florian
Bosman, F.T. (Fredrik Theodoor)
Šustar, Predrag
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Nederlands Tijdschrift Voor Geneeskunde
Developmental Biology
Current Biology
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Science in Context
Harvard University Press
Greenwood Press
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press
Academic Press
Molecular biology
Crick, Francis
Miescher, Friedrich
Watson, James Dewey
Franklin, Rosalind
Wilkins, Maurice Hugh Frederick
Müller, Hermann Joseph
Time Periods
20th century
19th century
21st century
20th century, late
20th century, early
Great Britain
Ghent University
Tübingen. Universität
Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research
Human Genome Project

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