Today in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick announced that they had discovered DNA's double-helix structure. The two scientists worked at Cambridge University, and were the first to prove DNA's shape.
Deoxyribonucleic acid was first discovered in 1869. We didn't know about its primary role in determining genetic inheritance until 1943, and its helix structure was totally unknown. Crick and Watson weren't alone in their search for its structure. A chemist named Linus Pauling proposed a model in 1953 that proved to be inaccurate, spurring Crick and Watson to beat him to the correct answer.
On February 28th, they discovered the double-helix structure. DNA is composed of two long chains of monomer nucleotides, wrapped around each other.
They adjudged that the DNA replicated itself by separating the strands, which then became halves of new DNA helixes.
According to Watson in his book The Double Helix, when he discovered the helix structure, Crick walked into a nearby pub and announced to its patrons that he "had found the secret of life."
DNA's structure was, at that time, one of the most significant missing pieces in scientific knowledge about genes. It explained how genetic information was able to be passed from parents to their offspring.
An explanatory article they published in Nature magazine on April 25, 1953, changed biology forever. It immediately resulted in the development of pre-natal screening for diseases, genetically modified food, genetic diagnostic tools for criminal cases and many other innovations we still use today.
Watson's book caused a rift to open between he and Crick. Crick believed that Watson had portrayed their collaboration incorrectly and had personally betrayed him. They also befell controversy when it was made known that Crick and Watson had utilized the research of Rosalind Franklin in their investigations into DNA. Some of her x-ray photographic work was shown to Watson just before they discovered the helix.
Franklin died in 1958, but Crick and Watson shared their 1962 Nobel Prize with her posthumously.
Crick and Watson's work was not without controversy, but it was one of the major foundational feats of genetic, biological and medical science. The world would look radically different today had they not discovered DNA's structure and proposed their model of how living things conduct their genetic inheritance.
James Watson is still alive, though Crick passed away in 2004. Their contributions secure their legacy as among the greats in the history of the hard sciences. Their names are now synonymous with genomics.