The nun who helped discover DNA

The shape of DNA was affirmed by work of Sr Miriam Michael Stimson (Pixabay)

The scientific work of an American Dominican sister was instrumental in the discovery of DNA, Aleteia reports.

The discovery of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, was a ground-breaking step in understanding the building blocks of all living creatures. DNA is a molecule in each cell that bears the genetic instructions for the development and reproduction of living organisms, including viruses.

The credit for the discovery of the DNA double helix was given to American biologist James Watson, English physicist Francis Crick and New Zealand biologist Maurice Wilkins, but they would not have won their 1962 Nobel Prize without the work of several scientists before them, including Wilkins’ colleague Rosalind Franklin and Dominican Sister Miriam Michael Stimson OP.

Sr Miriam (1913 – 2002) was an Adrian Dominican and a professor of chemistry at Siena Heights University, Adrian, Michigan. Her obituary notes:

“Her early success in chemistry, working on early research examining cells, led to an invitation to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris. She was the second woman to lecture there; the first was Marie Curie. She later received international recognition for her early work with the spectroscope, a tool used for analysing chemicals, and wrote manuals for using the instrument.”

Beyond that, Sr Miriam worked on wound-healing hormones, helping to create Preparation H. She established a research laboratory in 1939, where she researched cancer for more than 30 years.

Arguably, her most significant contribution in cancer research was her solution that unlocked the shape of DNA nucleobases. Jun Tsuji’s book The Soul of DNA records:

“In the early 1950s, scientists were on the verge of discovering the DNA double helix and unveiling cancer as a genetic disease. Stumped by the uncertainty regarding the shape of the DNA bases, the structural and functional “soul” of DNA, the male-dominated scientific establishment – from James Watson and Francis Crick to Linus Pauling – proposed models of DNA that were, in effect, inside out. In contrast, a woman, Sr Miriam Michael Stimson, OP, an Adrian Dominican sister and chemist, dared to imagine a solution to the DNA base problem ... Sr Miriam Michael successfully developed a chemical method that affirmed the structure of the DNA bases and of the double helix itself.”


Sister Miriam: The Dominican nun who helped discover DNA(Aleteia)

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