The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

Life, DNA and the model


Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD, UK. Email:


This paper argues that the 1953 double-helix solution to the problem of DNA structure was understood, at the time, as a blow within a fiercely fought dispute over the material nature of life. The paper examines the debates, between those for whom life was a purely material phenomenon and religious people for whom it had a spiritual significance, that were waged from the aftermath of the First World War to the 1960s. It looks at the developing arguments of early promoters of molecular biology, including J.D. Bernal, his pupil Max Perutz and his pupil Francis Crick, on the one side, and of the so-called ‘Inkling’ cluster of writers including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, on the other. This debate was conducted through polemical works, journalism, and science fiction and through the Festival of Britain and can be followed through the commentary of Jacob Bronowski. The paper concludes with the model of the double helix now at the Science Museum, which can be considered an archaeological relic of a battle in a war which is still being fought.

(Online publication October 20 2011)


  I should like to acknowledge the benefit of criticism of earlier versions of this paper presented at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London; the Institute of Contemporary British History; the London Consortium; the international colloquium on The Monist Century at Queens University Belfast; and the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology and particularly the trenchant remarks of Soraya de Chadarevian. I am grateful too for the comments of Robert Olby on a draft of this article drawing upon his deep understanding of the life of Francis Crick. I also owe a debt to the inspiration of Mark B. Adams, who long ago pointed out to me the contrast between the visions of J.D. Bernal and C.S. Lewis. Finally I should like to thank this journal's editor and referees for their advice.