Press release

Million-page story of modern genetics launched by the Wellcome Library

The papers of the pioneers of modern genetics - including Francis Crick, James D Watson, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin - have been collected together for the first time and made freely available in a £3.9 million digitisation project from the Wellcome Library.

Codebreakers: Makers of modern genetics, which launches today at, contains more than one million pages of first-hand notes, letters, sketches, lectures, photographs and essays from the circle of brilliant minds responsible for uncovering the structure of DNA. The site lays bare the personal and professional thoughts, rivalries, blind alleys and breakthroughs of the scientists whose ideas transformed our understanding of the matter of life.

Drawing on five partner archives in the USA, London, Cambridge and Glasgow and the Wellcome Library's own holdings, Codebreakers offers an unparalleled and comprehensive primary resource for researchers and curious minds across the world and is launched ahead of the 60th anniversary of Crick and Watson's seminal 'Nature' paper revealing the structure of DNA. It holds the stories behind the discovery, which has shaped our genetic age, from diagnosis to drug development and from forensics to food production, and which lies at the heart of today's biomedical research.

The vast collections contain iconic documents - such as Crick's preliminary sketches of the double helix and Franklin's X-ray diffraction 'photo 51' - and everyday exchanges. The biological revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, together with their legacies in the fields of medical genetics and genomics, are recorded in the scientists' own words and placed in the context of earlier research into the links between heredity and health, including the archives of the Eugenics Society, one of the most influential scientific organisations of the early 20th century.

Codebreakers sits within an entirely redesigned Wellcome Library website, and a new media player allows the close reading, downloading and embedding of digitised files. The content is free to all, and users can log in using Library membership, Facebook or Twitter accounts. A timeline and essays on key individuals and research groups offer navigational aids through the records.

Codebreakers is a collaborative project, uniting collections from five internationally important centres. Working with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Churchill Archives Centre Cambridge, the University of Glasgow, King's College London and UCL, the digitised papers of James D Watson, Rosalind Franklin, Sydney Brenner, Lionel Penrose, J B S Haldane, Guido Pontecorvo, James Harrison Renwick, Malcolm Ferguson-Smith and Maurice Wilkins have been made available. They join material from the Wellcome Library's own holdings, including the papers of Francis Crick, Fred Sanger, Arthur Ernest Mourant, Peter Medawar, Hans Grüneberg, Honor Fell and Gerard Wyatt.

Users exploring the site will find treasures of beauty - such as Honor Fell's minutely observed cell drawings - and import, including richly annotated holographs of key papers and lectures unlocking the secrets of DNA. The archives are full of candid correspondence, keen professional insight and moving personal items, such as Peter Medawar's self-portraits, which were drawn after suffering a stroke.

Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library says: "Codebreakers reveals the extraordinarily convoluted networks of influence, insight and inspiration that lie behind crucial moments of scientific discovery. It is a project made possible by a creative partnership with five outstanding libraries and archives, sharing a goal of free and open access. Together, our collections offer an extraordinarily rich research resource documenting one of the most significant periods of scientific innovation in human history."

The Wellcome Library's Codebreakers project is the first phase of a major digitisation programme that will create integrated online content, featuring digitised books, archives, films, photographs and audio covering every aspect of the history of medicine and biomedical science. A further half million pages will be added to Codebreakers over the next six months, and £5.8 million has been set aside for the next phase of the Library's digitisation plans, which focus on material relating to neurology and mental health. The Library itself is also expanding as part of a £17.5-million development of Wellcome Collection due for completion in summer 2014.

Material digitised for Codebreakers includes:

From the Wellcome Library:

The archive of Francis Crick (1916-2004), featuring extensive files of correspondence, scientific notes, writings in draft, laboratory notebooks, and papers over a period of more than 50 years, tracing both the emergence of molecular biology as a scientific discipline and Crick's central role as a scientific theorist.

The Biochemical Society: laboratory notebooks of Fred Sanger (1918-) from the 1940s to the 1980s, detailing the elaborate molecular structure of insulin and the development of the first DNA sequencing technique. The archive of Arthur Ernest Mourant (1904-1994), a geologist, chemist, haematologist and geneticist, comprising extensive papers from 1919 to 1996 that reveal his contribution to the study of human blood groups and their distribution.

  • The archive of geneticist Hans Grüneberg (1907-1982) who worked on developmental genetics in the mouse, featuring correspondence between 1922 and 1982 with colleagues, friends, organisations and institutions. The papers of serologists Robert Race (1907-1984) and Ruth Sanger (1918-2001), revealing their contribution to the study of blood groups and genetic mapping of the X chromosome, including personal papers and correspondence, research notes, typescripts of lectures delivered, newspaper cuttings and photographs.
  • The archive covers from 1925 to 1999. The records of the Medical Research Council Blood Group Unit covering from 1927 to 1993, including Robert Race's research papers on human genetic markers, correspondence, research notes and pedigrees on blood grouping investigations, and a comprehensive collection of photographs recording staff at work and play. The archive of Sir Peter Medawar (1915-1987) relating to his career, scientific research, his writings on the philosophy of science, and biographical material that reveal his major contribution to understanding immunological tolerance from 1937 to 1991.
  • The papers of the Eugenics Society dated from 1863 to 2008, including correspondence, press cuttings, propaganda and publicity material, and papers accumulated by Dr Marie Stopes that reflect changing understandings of heredity and genetics.
  • The papers of Carlos Paton Blacker (1895-1975), psychiatrist and secretary of the Eugenics Society, cover almost all his life between 1909 and 1980 and reflect his long and active career in psychiatry, his return to military duty in World War II as a Regimental Medical Officer, and his activities as Secretary to the Eugenics Society and involvement with birth control-related organisations.
  • The archive of the scientist/zoologist, Dame Honor Bridget Fell (1900-1986) covers the years 1919-1988 and includes her laboratory notebooks and correspondence as Director of the Strangeways Research Laboratory, Cambridge, that reveal her contributions to the development of the 'organ culture method' that allowed cells to be grown in a lab.
  • Laboratory notebooks, correspondence and other papers of Gerard R Wyatt (b.1925), related to his research on nucleic acids, including DNA, between 1949 and 1955.

From Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory:

  • The James D Watson (1928-) Collection, featuring biographical papers, correspondence, notebooks, and photographs and video, spanning his entire career, from the discovery of the double helix and his leadership at CSHL to his role in the Human Genome Project.
  • The Sydney Brenner (1927-) Collection, featuring correspondence with Francis Crick between 1945 and 1979 and archival material (including notebooks, photographs and writings) between 1948 and 1992. It also includes a set of material that belonged to Francis Crick, including correspondence, photographs, writings and laboratory data dating from 1949 to 1982.

From the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge:

  • The papers of Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), including posthumously collected material about Franklin, covering the period 1937-1976.

From King's College London:

  • Large-scale selection from the MRC Biophysics Unit, focused on the early history of X-ray crystallographic diffraction, including research, papers, notes and correspondence by and related to Maurice Wilkins (1916-2004).
  • Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling's X-ray diffraction 'photo 51' (1952).

From the University of Glasgow Archives Service:

  • The Guido Pontecorvo (1907-1999) Collection, including research material, correspondence, lecture notes and slides from the 1940s to the 1990s.
  • The James Harrison Renwick (1926-1994) Collection, dating chiefly from the period of Renwick's human genetics research from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s.
  • The Malcolm Ferguson-Smith (1931-) Collection, dominated by very substantial correspondence dating from 1957 onwards.

From UCL:

  • The Lionel Penrose (1898-1972) Collection, including his professional and personal papers, essays, correspondence and photographs from 1915 to his death in 1972.
  • The J B S Haldane (1892-1964) Collection, including notes, papers and correspondence, 1935-1957.