100 and 50 years ago


Different minds place different estimates on the intellectual accomplishments of the past half-century. In ordinary conversation the men of the mart will point to an Eiffel tower, a suspension bridge, a continental express train, a man-of-war, or an Atlantic cable. But in a discourse recently delivered in commemoration of the jubilee of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, President Gilman remarked that perhaps the greatest triumphs of the intellect during the last half-century are these five contributions to human knowledge: the establishment of the principles of evolution; the establishment of the principle of the conservation of energy; the development of mathematical science and its application to physics, mechanics, electricity and astronomy; the development of spectrum analysis and the consequent discoveries respecting light and electricity; and the discovery of the nature and functions of bacteria, and of their influence, for weal or woe, upon living organisms.

From Nature 16 December 1897.


In 1914 Walter Jones began the preface to his monograph on nucleic acids with the words, “The nucleic acids constitute what is possibly the best understood field of Physiological Chemistry⃛” That was then a tenable point of view; but twenty years later it would have been absurd. There are fashions in everything, including biochemistry, and nucleic acids went largely out of fashion or were swamped by the growth of our knowledge of proteins, oxidation mechanisms and the other processes that characterized the development of biochemistry in the 1930's. The boom-slump-boom cycle is, however, not confined to economics, and a nucleic acid boom is now upon us. Much new knowledge of the intrinsic properties and biological behaviour of the nucleic acids has been gained during the past few years; but there seems to have been a disproportionate flood of review articles, conferences and symposia. Stocktaking is valuable, but what is now needed in cytochemistry is more stock rather than more surveying.

From Nature 20 December 1947.


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Pirie, N. 100 and 50 years ago. Nature 390, 659 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/37729

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