`Fabulous' paper chase

Collection: A scientist's long pursuit of the papers of Francis Crick leads to another DNA pioneer, J. Craig Venter.

August 11, 2005|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Francis H.C. Crick, the late scientist who helped discover the "double helix" structure of DNA that led to a Nobel Prize and a renaissance within the field of molecular biology, was not - to Al Seckel's dismay - a pack rat.

Years ago, Crick had given away a manuscript detailing his DNA work to a scientist living in Wales, who in turn sold it to a San Francisco doctor for $2,000. That news floored Seckel when he found out a decade ago.

"The thing was probably worth about a quarter of a million," he said yesterday when contacted in California. It wasn't so much the money that bothered him, though. It was the thought that these great works were being scattered around the world.

Crick's work, along with that of his colleague James D. Watson, is widely considered among the most significant advances in biology of the 20th century. And to Seckel, a scientist himself, its paper trail was the equivalent of a signed Babe Ruth home-run ball or a first-edition Mark Twain.

Seckel decided to save the origins of classic molecular biology - the period between 1930 and 1960 - by collecting its most important papers, with the financial help of another Californian named Jeremy Norman, and assembling them into an archive accessible to scholars.

Little did he know that the quest would take nearly a decade, never quite be realized and cost him a close friendship. It would also have enough twists for a Hollywood script, involving a so-called "Dark Lady of DNA," money-hungry biologists, angry librarians and Maryland's own rock-star scientist, J. Craig Venter, who yesterday announced that his namesake Rockville foundation, the Venter Institute, had acquired Seckel's collection through a private placement arranged by Christie's, the New York auction house.

It turns out Venter may have stolen the show from Cold Spring Harbor, a Long Island laboratory that is home to Watson's DNA papers and had been trying to raise money to buy this grouping of scientific documents, now known as the "Jeremy Norman Collection" after Seckel's friend and financier in the project.

Sharing compilation

Venter's plans for the collection - which includes correspondence, galley proofs, photographs and notebooks from some of the world's most celebrated scientists - are reassuringly similar to the lab's: He's going to make them available to scholars.

"We look forward to sharing this tremendous compilation of molecular biology history with others," Venter said yesterday in a statement. He was on a sailing expedition in the Indian Ocean and unavailable for further comment. "In the future," the statement continued, "we hope to complement the collection with additional key scientific documents."

Those will likely be his own. Aside from a reputation as a nonconformist, Venter is best known as being among the first to map the human DNA code that spiraled along Watson and Crick's double helix, as well as the first to map the genetic code of the fruit fly, his dog Shadow and - more recently - the first to build a company on the idea that he could create synthetic life.

"I'm extremely pleased with the fact that the Venter Institute has acquired this collection," Norman said at his California office. "It's a fabulous collection and it's now in great hands. ... It's unbelievably appropriate."

Seckel was a little less enthusiastic.

"I'm very happy for Craig," he said, bittersweet tones to his voice. "But I don't think the play is over yet."

The tale behind yesterday's news started on the West Coast and ended on the East, with strange twists in between. One of Seckel's first moves when he began the project around 1996 was to bring a wealthy backer on board to pay for it.

That would be Norman, who'd done quite well as a collector of historical artifacts involving science, technology or medicine. This year, he sold a separate collection - called "Jeremy's Origins of Cyberspace Library" - through Christie's.

"This is my business, I've been doing it for a long time," said Norman, who called this most recent collection "one of the most significant ever made."

With Norman footing the bill, Seckel went about tracking down items of interest, rescuing them from the trash in some cases.

"Scientists were throwing their papers out because no one had expressed interest in them," he said.

Among his prized finds were the notes of Rosalind Franklin, who historians have dubbed the Dark Lady of DNA. Franklin was a molecular biologist studying and photographing DNA in the 1950s, when Watson and Crick were doing the same. She died in 1958, never getting the credit many felt she deserved.

At first, scientists were thrilled with Seckel, who offered them five- and six-figure sums for notes many had been storing in attics and basements. But as time wore on, Seckel said the relationships deteriorated. Demands were made for more money, families intervened, his motives questioned. Librarians felt his offers of payment had kept the papers from being donated to various institutions.

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