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The Francis Crick Papers

Letter from Jerry Donohue to Francis Crick pdf (163,563 Bytes) transcript of pdf
Letter from Jerry Donohue to Francis Crick
In his letter Donohue recited his contention that Fourier analysis of recent X-ray diffraction data did not conclusively prove the validity of Watson's and Crick's model of base-pairing in DNA. (Fourier analysis is a mathematical technique used to calculate the periodic functions that arise in situations of cylindrical symmetry, such as in fiber crystals of DNA.) Instead, Donohue claimed that the data was compatible with alternative base-pairings as well. Donohue dismissed biochemical evidence for the Watson-Crick model of DNA, for instance evidence for the antiparallel direction of the two strands, as irrelevant to his argument, which he claimed was based on crystallography, not biochemistry.
Crick did not in fact publish the "considered article" he mentioned in Donohue's letter. However, in a retrospective, "The Double Helix: A Personal View," published in the April 26, 1974, issue of Nature (vol. 248, p.768), Crick summarized that Donohue, "whose advice was crucial to our understanding of base pairing, was a persistent critic of the validity of the later X-ray work, but in recent years he had carried it too far . . ."
Number of Image Pages:
2 (163,563 Bytes)
1970-08-10 (August 10, 1970)
Donohue, Jerry
Crick, Francis
Original Repository: Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine. Francis Harry Compton Crick Papers
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Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
Crystallography, X-Ray
Exhibit Category:
Embryology and the Organization of DNA in Higher Organisms, 1966-1976
Metadata Record Letter from Francis Crick to Jerry Donohue (August 3, 1970) pdf (54,487 Bytes) transcript of pdf
Metadata Record The Double Helix: A Personal View (April 26, 1974) pdf (657,800 Bytes) ocr (23,937 Bytes)
Box Number: 21
Folder Number: PP/CRI/D/2/11/1
Unique Identifier:
Document Type:
Letters (correspondence)
Physical Condition:
Series: Correspondence
SubSeries: Individual Correspondents
SubSubSeries: Correspondence: Donohue, Jerry
Folder: Correspondence with Donohue
10 August 1970
Dear Francis,
This is a combined reply to your letters of July 15(I) and August 3(II). I was in the process of finishing my comments on (I), when (II) arrived.
I am not surprised that you were not surprised (II) that I felt I had to reply to Nature's remarks. Not Nature, actually, but some masked reporter. What a stomach-centered creature, with his custard pie and hot potato! He seems to have a gustatory hang-up, which perhaps compensates for his ignorance of diffraction, among other things.
I gather from (II) that Nature has agreed to publish a considered article by you, which is certainly preferable to a hasty letter. If this is to contain the points at issue as you see them, i.e., that non-crystallographic dyads cause numerous reflections to be effectively centric and that in centric structures my arguments have much less force, it would be only correct if the same issue contained my point of view. Inasmuch as I am in no position to ring up the editor, as you have done, to make the appropriate arrangements, why don't you explain the above to him? I just happen to have a manuscript on this subject which constituted the first half of my first paper to Science, but which was scissored by the referees, who wanted the emphasis on DNA, and not Fourier analysis, contrary to my original intention. It wouldn't take too much trouble to make it suitable for a short Nature article to accompany yours.
However, I see no reason why you should quote my opinion in your paper. I would say that my opinion rightly belongs in a paper authored by me, while your papers should contain your own conclusions, based on your experience and knowledge of the literature.
To return to (I), most of it is really not concerned with Fourier analysis, and is thus not germane to what I have been talking about. What Khorana did, and what the evidence is for how the chains run, etc., has nothing whatever to do with the calculation of rho (xyz) and why that calculation, in this case, doesn't prove anything.
It is interesting that you have established that I do not have an adequate grasp of helical diffraction theory. You are not aware that there is no such thing as helical diffraction theory. This "theory" doesn't tell us one whit more than the expression [scientific formula] (hxi + kyi + lzi), which has been known for quite some time. The "theory" merely provided a short-cut, in precisely the same way Knott's molecular structure factor method did, but no one talks about molecular structure factor theory.
Finally, I see no reason for you to persuade the King's group to make available to me data which they should have published in the first place. It amazes me that some people consider their structures "generally accepted". As my second mentor in crystallography, J. H. Sturdivat, often said, "publish your data, for without them your structures can only be accepted on faith, which has no place in science". So much for dogma, which hasn't been doing so well lately.
Yours ever,
Jerry Donohue
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