Image of a cell

Erwin Chargaff

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For fundamental chemical and biological studies establishing the basis for modern concepts of the mechanisms of protein synthesis and the genetic role of nucleic acids.

The world’s greatest scientific discoveries didn’t come overnight. In many cases, hundreds of men laid the groundwork – inching closer to a revelation – only to watch a single team get credit for the end result.

Erwin Chargaff was one of those men, making two discoveries that led James Watson and Francis Crick to the double helix structure of DNA.

At first, Chargaff noticed that DNA – whether taken from a plant or animal – contained equal amounts of adenine and thymine and equal amounts of cytosine and guanine.

These equalities provided clues into the chemical pairings that make up the double helix.

In addition, Chargaff also found that amounts of guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine vary by species – an indication that DNA, not protein, might be the genetic material for life.

“Science is wonderfully equipped to answer the question ‘How?’” Chargaff once said, “but it gets terribly confused when you ask the question ‘Why?’”