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Rockefeller University Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Discovery That Genes Are Made of DNA

Week-long series of events commemorates “single most important finding in biology of the 20th century”

Fifty years to the day of the publication of the historic paper that showed that genes are made of DNA–considered by many to be the single most important scientific finding in biology of the 20th century–The Rockefeller University will host an anniversary toast at the site of the original discovery, The Rockefeller University Hospital. This celebration, on Tues., Feb. 1, will be followed by a week-long series of events devoted to exploring various aspects of the original discovery.


The anniversary toast, to be held at The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Ave. (at 66 St.) at 12:30 P.M. on Tues., Feb. 1, will be led by Rockefeller University President and Nobel laureate Torsten Wiesel, who will raise a glass in salute of Maclyn McCarty, currently professor emeritus at Rockefeller and one of the three original co-authors of the paper with Oswald Avery and Colin MacLeod. Other speakers will be Dr. McCarty and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees David Rockefeller whose grandfather founded the university in 1901 and who has served on the board since 1940. John Dyson, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, will represent the Mayor’s Office.


“It is no exaggeration to say that the finding of Avery, MacLeod and McCarty opened the gateway to the modern era of biology and medicine,” said Dr. Wiesel. “In celebrating this historic event, we celebrate as well The Rockefeller University’s enduring mission of diagnosing and curing sickness by uncovering the inner secrets of life.”


Drs. Avery, MacLeod and McCarty were researching pneumonia, looking for the substance causing a mysterious genetic transformation, when they published their revolutionary finding in The Journal of Experimental Medicine on Feb. 1, 1944. Their paper revealed the hidden hereditary nature of the thread-like DNA fibers present in all cells and proved that it was DNA–and not a protein or any other substance–that was the carrier of hereditary information. The discovery has been likened in its revolutionary impact to the work of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, and it laid the foundations for Dr. Watson and Francis Crick’s more well publicized discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA molecules.


“It has been exhilirating to watch the progress of DNA biology as it has developed in the 50 years since we first discovered its genetic role,” said Dr. McCarty. “I believe the fruits of our early research are contributing in a major way to the advancement of scientific knowledge today and, increasingly, to the understanding and treatment of a variety of medical problems.”


The events in February are part of a year-long celebration at The Rockefeller University of the 50th anniversary of the discovery that genes are made of DNA. The celebration was inaugurated in November with a lecture by Nobel laureate James Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helical structure of DNA. Later this year, the series will include a public lecture, “Ethics and DNA Technology,” by Nancy Wexler, professor at Columbia University and chair of the Joint National Institutes of Health/Department of Energy Human Genome Project’s Committee on Ethics; the lecture will be held at the university on Mon., April 18, at 6:00 P.M. The university will also host another scientific symposium, featuring a panel of young Rockefeller University scientists working in key areas of DNA research, on Fri., May 6, at 3:45 P.M.


Other events during the anniversary week, also at The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Ave. (at 66th St.), will include:


* Wed., Feb. 2, 5:00 P.M. “The Human Genome Project in its Scientific Context,” a public lecture by David Botstein, professor and chairman of the Department of Genetics at Stanford University School of Medicine;


* Thurs., Feb. 3, 4:00 P.M. “Historical Roundtable,” a discussion with key scientists active between the publication of the Avery, MacLeod and McCarty paper in 1944 and the discovery of DNA’s double-helical structure in 1953. The panel will be moderated by Robert Olby, visiting professor at The Rockefeller University and author of The Path to the Double Helix. Speakers will include:


  • Erwin Chargaff, professor emeritus at Columbia University;
  • Seymour Cohen, professor emeritus at SUNY at Stony Brook;
  • Alfred Day Hershey, former director of the Genetic Research Unit of the Carnegie Institution of Washington;
  • Rollin Hotchkiss, professor emeritus at The Rockefeller University;
  • Joshua Lederberg, professor and former president of The Rockefeller University;
  • Dr. McCarty; professor emeritus at The Rockefeller University and former physician-in-chief at The Rockefeller University Hospital
  • Norton Zinder, professor at The Rockefeller University.

* Fri., Feb. 4, 3:45 P.M. A scientific symposium, in which leading scientists discuss research in areas pursued by the Avery laboratory–immunology, infectious disease, and molecular medicine. The panel will be moderated by Emil Gotschlich, professor at The Rockefeller University. Speakers will be:


  • Robert Austrian, professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine;
  • John Robbins, chair of the Laboratory of Developmental and Molecular Immunity, National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, National Insitutes of Health.