NIH Press Advisory
National Library of Medicine

Thursday, September 24, 1998

Bob Mehnert
Kathy Gardner

New Web Site Allows Public to Examine Evolution of Medical Discoveries

National Library of Medicine to Unveil Novel Internet Site Featuring the Work of Prominent Pioneers in Biomedical Science

(Bethesda, Md.)--Who is Oswald Theodore Avery? It's a question many might ask. And the answer can be found today on the National Library of Medicine's (NLM) new web site, called "Profiles in Science." NLM Director Dr. Donald Lindberg unveiled the new web site saying it "will allow anyone with Internet access to look behind the scenes of scientific findings and read the unpublished writings, letters, and lab notes of great scientists and great scientific discoveries."

"The first of these collections shows the hitherto private papers of Oswald Avery and helps tell the story of the single most critical discovery in the history of modern genetics," said Dr. Lindberg.

"The system aims to bring together the best in archival practices with state-of-the-art technology, " said Dr. Alexa McCray," who leads the NLM team that developed Profiles in Science. "I want scientists, scholars, and students to appreciate the history, and share some of the excitement of these early scientific discoveries in molecular biology. After all, current public curiosity about genetic screening and cloning is based on those early findings," she said.

Joshua Lederberg, Nobel Laureate and former president of The Rockefeller University, joined Lindberg in launching "Profiles in Science" and unveiled the first collection to be housed on the new web site-the work of Oswald Theodore Avery (1877-1955)-one of this country's first molecular biologists, whose findings proved that genetic material is DNA. In Dr. Lederberg's words: "There was no doubt we were living through a revolutionů. For the first time we could have a biological assay for the genetic activity of an external molecule."

Beginning today, "Profiles in Science" can be found at: The site will continually be enriched with the papers of other great scientists of the twentieth century.

Unsung Scientific Hero Finally Gets Recognition

While Oswald Theodore Avery is not a scientific household name, his research laid the groundwork for modern genetics and molecular biology. Prior to Avery's work, genetic material was assumed to be protein. Avery proved conclusively in 1944 that DNA from the nucleus of the cell is the genetic material.

Despite this seminal work, Avery's research has been overshadowed by better-known scientists such as Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins-who elucidated the structure of DNA for which they won the Nobel prize in 1962. Crick, Watson, and Wilkins showed the three-dimensional structure of the DNA and its sequential encoding of the genes.

Avery spent most of his research life at Rockefeller Institute where he also made important contributions to the understanding of the pneumococcus organism-a particularly virulent bacterium that caused lobar pneumonia. In the early part of this century more than 50,000 people a year died from this disease.

At age 67, Avery made his most important discovery-when he identified DNA as the substance of the genes, in a seminal 1944 paper co-authored by Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine. [The full text of McCarty's subsequent book, The Transforming Principle, is online as part of the Profiles site.] Avery's finding was truly revolutionary in the scientific world at that time, in part, because it was so unexpected. Again, in Dr. Lederberg's words: "Beyond its details, the revolutionary contribution of Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty was the refocusing on DNA by a generation of chemical biology. Certainly that was its precise impact on the initiation of my own scientific research."

According to other scientists, all of biology today is based on Avery's 1944 paper. Dr. Paul A. Marks, president of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, says, "The discovery that DNA is hereditary material is perhaps the most important discovery in biology of the 20th century." Sir Peter Medawar, a Nobel winner, calls Avery's research, "The most interesting and portentous biological experiment of the 20th century."

Despite Avery's noteworthy scientific contribution he failed to win the Nobel prize. It's an oversight that still puzzles. While various theories have been advanced, including the Nobel Committee's reluctance to recognize the contribution of genetics to the field of medicine at that time, Lindberg hopes that NLM's new site will allow future generations to appreciate not only the genius of Avery, but also the other great scientific discoveries of this century.