Friday, November 13, 2015

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: was the history of the discovery of DNA repair correct?

... those ignorant of history are not condemned to repeat it; they are merely destined to be confused.

Stephen Jay Gould
Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977)
Back when the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced I was surprised to learn that it was for DNA repair but Phil Hanawalt wasn't a winner. I blogged about it on the first day [Nobel Prize for DNA repair ].

I understand how difficult it is to choose Nobel Laureates in a big field where a great many people make a contribution. That doesn't mean that the others should be ignored but that's exactly what happened with the Nobel Prize announcement [The Nobel Prize in Chemsitry for 2015].
In the early 1970s, scientists believed that DNA was an extremely stable molecule, but Tomas Lindahl demonstrated that DNA decays at a rate that ought to have made the development of life on Earth impossible. This insight led him to discover a molecular machinery, base excision repair, which constantly counteracts the collapse of our DNA.
Maybe it's okay to ignore people like Phil Hanawalt and others who worked out mechanisms of DNA repair in the early 1960s but this description pretends that DNA repair wasn't even discovered until ten years later.

I published links to all the papers from the 1960s in a follow-up post [Nature publishes a misleading history of the discovery of DNA repair ].

By that time I was in touch with David Kroll who was working on an article about the slight to early researchers. He had already spoken to Phil Hanawalt and discovered that he (Hanawalt) wasn't too upset. Phil is a really, really nice guy. It would be shocking if he expressed disappointment or bitterness about being ignored. I'll do that for him!

The article has now been published: This Year’s Nobel Prize In Chemistry Sparks Questions About How Winners Are Selected.

Read it. It's very good.


  1. Phil Hanawalt is a wise and noble man, and a true scientist. I'm sure many actual Nobel Prize laureates would gladly swap biographies with him.

  2. I have a suggestion. In all seriousness, have you considered writing a history of the field? I learn a great deal about work and workers I would know little or nothing about otherwise. And I really enjoy it.