Oswald Avery: The Unsung Genetics Genius


If you are a loyal fan of our popular science magazine SCIplanet—the Autumn 2016 issue* in particular—you may think we have already tackled all DNA pioneers; however, the surprises of unknown scientists never end. In the 1950s, James Watson and Francis Crick revolutionized biology when they discovered the double helix structure of the DNA, depending on the experimental studies of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. However, why were they studying this? Who realized that genes are made of DNA in the first place?

In the 1940s, aided by his research team at the Rockefeller Institute, Dr. Oswald Avery managed to identify the chemical nature of DNA. At that time, DNA was only a mysterious substance that Avery discovered in the pneumonia bacteria, which he had been studying for thirty years. Some forms of this bacteria became infectious; this transformation was permanent and was inherited from one generation of bacteria to another. This was why Avery thought a virus, or a gene, was involved, and adhered to know what this virus or gene was made of. By 1943, he identified it as a stringy white substance widespread in cells: a Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, or later widely known as DNA.

Avery was born on 21 October 1877, in Canada. He studied at Colgate University, then received a medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, in 1904. He turned his attention to bacteriological research at the Hoagland Laboratory in Brooklyn, and continues his researches in the area with his team at the Rockefeller Institute Hospital in New York City.

Not only did Avery’s work pave the way for Crick, Watson, and Wilkins to the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1953, but also for Joshua Lederberg* Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1958, for his work on bacterial genetics. However, Avery never won a Nobel Prize, nor was he cited by these Nobel Laureates; he remained obscured until his death in 1955. Yet, the Royal Society honored Avery in 1945 for his work on microbiology and outstanding importance of his discovery for geneticists.

To know more about Oswald Avery life and scientific contribution, watch the following video:

*Check “The Matilda Effect” article, SCIplanet Magazine, Autumn 2016 issue.


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