Antony Barrington-Brown (1927-2012)

Antony Barrington-Brown, who captured the first pictures of Watson and Crick with their original model of the DNA double helix, has died. 

Watson and Crick, who would come to disagree about pretty much everything concerning their discovery as depicted in Watson’s grandiose bestseller, The Double Helix, also could not agree on exactly when a picture featured in Watson’s book was taken. That picture, of course, was the above photo of two young scientists with their original model.

Watson said the photo was taken in May 1953, shortly after the announcement of their discovery in Nature. Crick recalled that they made the large scale model for the Cavendish Laboratory’s open house in July of that year. But they do not dispute that the photo was taken by another Cambridge student, Antony Barrington-Brown, who recalled:

An undergraduate friend of mine aspiring to be a journalist sought out stories on his own account. One day he gave me a tip-off that someone at the Cavendish Laboratory had made an important discovery, so could I take a picture to go with his story which he wanted to offer to Time magazine? So it was that I set off on my bicycle towing a two-wheeled trolley which carried my tripod and lights. I dragged the trolley up several flights of stairs and knocked at the door of one of dozens of similar rooms where research students worked.

I was affably greeted by a couple of chaps lounging at a desk by the window, drinking coffee. “What’s all this about?” I asked. With an airy wave of the hand one of them, Crick I think, said “we’ve got this model” indicating an array of retort stands holding thin brass rods and balls. Although supposedly a chemist myself it meant absolutely nothing to me and fortunately they did not expose my ignorance by attempting to explain it in terms I might just have comprehended. Anyway, I had only come to get a picture so I set up my lights and camera and said “you’d better stand by it and look portentous” which they lamentably failed to do, treating my efforts as a bit of a joke. I took four frames of them with the model and then three or four back with their coffee.

My ‘snaps’ came out well enough and my friend fired them with his story off to Time, but they never used it and sent me half a guinea (52p) for my pains. Several historians have spent a lot of effort trying to establish when the pictures were first published, but I have never known.”

It is believed that the photos remained unpublished for at least 10 years. Even when Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize in 1962, there was no sign of them. But all that changed with the publication of The Double Helix in 1968. Suddenly, Barrington-Brown’s photos was published in many magazines. In the 1970s, they were used to reconstruct the original DNA model which had fallen apart years earlier. For the 40th anniversary of the discovery, the photo was restaged with Watson and Crick in the same poses.

Only in the 1990s that the photographer fully began to realise just how much he was losing in royalties and a deal was struck with the distributors. In a final irony, not only did the photos which Barrington-Brown never considered his best made him more money than all the rest of his pictures put together, but Time magazine also had to pay considerably more for the photos than when they were first offered.

See Science Photo Library for the bigger versions of Barrington-Brown’s photos:

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