Biology & Natural History

(Brenner, Sydney) Senechal, Marjorie I Died for Beauty. Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science.

  • First US edition, first printing. Originally published in the UK the previous year. From the library of Nobel Prize-winning biologist Sydney Brenner, with his ownership inscription on the front free endpaper, “Sydney Brenner, Cold Spring Harbour, 3 March 2013”. The receipt from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory bookshop is loosely inserted, together with a TSA baggage inspection notice.

    Sydney Brenner (1927 - ) has been a leader in the field of genetics almost from the moment he received his doctorate at Oxford in 1954. He joined Francis Crick’s laboratory in 1956, and they did groundbreaking research on how DNA is decoded by cells. Brenner proposed that the nucleotides which comprise DNA (adenine, guanine, thiamine and cytosine) are read by the cell in sets of three called codons, with each codon representing an amino acid (for example, three adenines in a row is the codon for the amino acid lysine). A gene is simply a string of codons that directs the production of a protein molecule from individual amino acids. He also correctly predicted the existence of messenger RNA, the molecule that carries the genetic code from the nucleus to the ribosomes, where the translation process occurs.

    Following this work, it was Brenner’s efforts to establish a new laboratory organism for the study of genetics that led to his Nobel Prize. “Beginning in 1965, he began to lay the groundwork to make C. elegans, a small, transparent nematode, into a major model organism for genetics, neurobiology and developmental biology research. As a direct result of his original vision, this tiny worm became the first animal for which the complete cell lineage and entire neuronal wiring were known. Today, more than 1,000 investigators are studying C. elegans, and Brenner’s work was further honored when a closely related nematode was named Caenorhabditis brenneri” (Salk Institute biography).

    The subject of this biography, Dorothy Wrinch (1894-1976), was a mathematician who was the first woman to receive a doctorate of sciences from Oxford. Mentored by Bertrand Russell, “between 1918 and 1932 she published sixteen papers on scientific methodology and philosophy of science” and began expanding her interests to biology, physics, and many other fields (Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science). Wrinch was a founding member of the Biotheoretical Gathering, a group dedicated to using methods from physics and mathematics to solve problems in biology, and she was awarded a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for this type of research. Inspired by the work of Dorothy Hodgkin and John D. Bernal on protein structures, Wrinch focused on geometrical approaches to determining protein structures. “She developed a new theory of protein structure that combined ideas of mathematical symmetry with the notion of a relatively rare type of chemical bond, the cyclol bond”, which she believed was “the main link between the amino acids that made up proteins” (BDWS). This model was controversial, causing rifts between Wrinch and the British crystallography community, as well as Linus Pauling. It was eventually shown to be only partially correct — cyclol bonds exist but are not the main bonds in proteins — nevertheless, she is important “as an early physical scientist who applied mathematical skills to biological problems. This type of approach eventually led to the rise of molecular biology in the 1930s” (BDWS).

  • New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Octavo. Original grey boards, titles to spine in silver. With the dust jacket. Illustrations from photographs throughout the text. An excellent, fresh copy in the lightly rubbed jacket.