Friedrich Miescher’s Discovery in the Historiography of Genetics: From Contamination to Confusion, from Nuclein to DNA
Sophie Juliane Veigl, Oren Harman, Ehud Lamm, Friedrich Miescher’s Discovery in the Historiography of Genetics: From Contamination to Confusion, from Nuclein to DNA. In Journal of the History of Biology 53, 451–484, 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 Using archival sources to unearth Miescher’s unpublished speculations—including an analogy between the hereditary material and language, and a speculation that a series of asymmetric carbon atoms could account for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.