Robert C. Olby Collection


Date: 1951-1963 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet


The historian of science Robert C. Olby is a graduate of University College London and Oxford. Best known for his work on the history of genetics, especially the Bateson school, and for his study of the early history of molecular biology, Olby is currently a Research Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Origins of Mendelism (1966), Charles Darwin (1967), The Path to the Double Helix (1974), and the Norton History of Biology. His current research is focused on the conceptual foundations of modern sensory neurophysiology and an intellectual biography of Francis Crick.

The Olby Collection contains about 150 photocopies of correspondence and documents collected by Olby during research for The Path to the Double Helix. Among these is a copy of a manuscript by F. C. Crick and James D. Watson, "The Complementary Structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid," prepared while Watson was at CalTech.

Background note

A graduate of the University College London and Oxford, Robert C. Olby (b. 1933) earned a reputation as an innovative historian of genetics with the publication of first book The Origins of Mendelism in 1966. When a former undergraduate friend of his, John Preble, suggested that he study the history of molecular biology, Olby gained an introduction to Francis Crick, the British biophysicist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who became both a scientific informant and close friend. Olby's The Path to the Double Helix (1974) provided an overview of the intellectual and institutional background that resulted in Watson and Crick's "physical and chemical account of the gene." In his introduction, Olby stated simply that his hope was that the book would "afford the historian, sociologist and scientist a guide to the source material relating to the origins of molecular biology, with special reference to DNA," but in fact it presented a masterful use of both primary written sources and oral histories. Ironically, Olby claimed that as a student at the University College London in the fifties, he could not remember hearing the word DNA ever being uttered.

Olby taught history of science at the University of Leeds from 1969-1993 and in the department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh from 1994-2001, where he remains as Research Professor.

Scope and content

The Olby Collection (23 folders, approximately 97 items) is comprised almost entirely of photocopies of correspondence from scientists involved in the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA in 1953. The correspondents include Sydney Brenner, Francis Crick, Max Delbruck, Rosalind Franklin, Roger Herriott, Alfred Hershey, Salvadore Luria, Heinrich Matthaei, Matthew Meselson, Linus Pauling, Alexander Rich, and James Watson. The topics discussed within the correspondence include but are not limited to the structure of DNA, Pauling's theory, RNA backbone, Jonathan Warner, and the RNA central code.

Collection Information


Gift of Robert C. Olby, June 1969 and October 1970 (acc. No. 1976-344ms and 1976-345ms).

Preferred citation

Cite as: Robert C. Olby Collection, American Philosophical Society.

Other finding aids

The Robert Olby Papers are briefly described in Bentley Glass' A Guide to the Genetics Collections of the APS.


Olby, Robert C., The Origins of Mendelism (London: Constable, 1966). Call no.: 575.1 OL1o.

Olby, Robert C., The Path to the Double Helix (Seattle: Univ. of Washington, 1974). Call no.: 574.19 OL1p.

Physiology, Biochemistry, and Biophysics Note

This collection of letters, documents, and biographical information represents some of the materials Olby had gathered for his noted book The Path to the Double Helix (1974).

Genetics Note

Brenner, SydneyCorrespondence (1 item)1960
Crick, Francis H. C.Correspondence (14 items)1955-1963
Crick, Francis H. C. and Watson, James D. -- The Complementary Structure of Deoxyribonucleic AcidManuscripts (28 pages)n.d.
Delbruck, MaxCorrespondence (2 items)1953-1955
Franklin, RosalindCorrespondence (1 item)1958
Gamow, GeorgeCorrespondence (13 items)1955-1962
Herriott, Roger MossCorrespondence (1 item)1951
Hershey, Alfred DayCorrespondence (1 item)1951
Luria, Salvador EdwardCorrespondence (2 items)1952-1953
Matthaei, HeinrichCorrespondence (8 items)1960, n.d.
Meselson, MatthewCorrespondence (1 item)1961
Olby, Robert Cecil -- Summary of Events Leading to Solution of DNA StructureManuscripts (9 pages)n.d.
Pauling, LinusCorrespondence (1 item)1953
Rich, AlexanderCorrespondence (18 items)1956-1963
Watson, James D.Correspondence (5 items)1953-1955

Indexing Terms

Personal Name(s)

  • Brenner, Sydney, 1927-2019
  • Crick, Francis, 1916-2004
  • Delbrück, Max, 1906-1981
  • Franklin, Rosalind, 1920-1958
  • Gamow, George, 1904-1968
  • Herriott, Roger Moss, 1908-
  • Hershey, A. D. (Alfred Day)
  • Luria, S. E. (Salvador Edward), 1912-1991
  • Matthaei, Heinrich
  • Nirenberg, Marshall W., 1927-2010
  • Olby, Robert C. (Robert Cecil)
  • Pauling, Linus, 1901-1994
  • Rich, Alexander
  • Watson, James Dewey


  • DNA -- Structure
  • Genetics
  • Molecular biology -- History

Detailed Inventory

Robert C. Olby Collection
1951-19630.25 lin. feetbox 1
Brenner, Sydney, 1927-2019.
TLS Cy to Matthew Meselson
1960 May 71 item

Regarding work of Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob.

Subject(s): Molecular genetics; Cytogenetics; Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Jacob, Francois; Monod, Jacques

Crick, Francis H. C.
1955-196314 item(s)

Subject(s): Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Unpublished manuscripts, notes, etc.; Biographical and personal data; Cytogenetics; Molecular genetics

Crick, Francis, 1916-2004.
Folder 1
1955-19566 items

Existance of deoxy-uracil in DNA; experiments on Collagen; new structure for polyglycine.

Crick, Francis, 1916-2004.
Folder 2
1957-19607 items

Polynucleotides; poly A; poly I + poly C; angle of hydroge hydrogen bond; DNA and RNA.

Crick, Francis, 1916-2004.
Folder 3. TLS Cy to Alex Rich
1963 April 241 item

Re: Rich's manuscript for Nature

Crick, Francis, 1916-2004. Watson, James D., 1928-.
The Complimentary Structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid
n.d.28 p.

Prepared while Watson was at California Institute of Technology.

Subject(s): Unpublished manuscripts, notes, etc.; Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Molecular genetics

Delbruck, Max
1953-19552 item(s)

Subject(s): Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Cytogenetics; Molecular genetics

Delbrück, Max, 1906-1981.
Folder 1. TLS Cy to J. D. Watson
1953 April 141 item

DNA structure

Delbrück, Max, 1906-1981.
Folder 2. TLS Cy to Alex and Jane Rich
1955 November 91 item

Rundle's RNA structure

Franklin, Rosalind, 1920-1958.
ALS Cy to Alex Rich
1958 March 161 item

Regarding tobacco mosaic virus (TMV).

Subject(s): Laboratory techniques, equipment; Biographical and personal data; Cytogenetics; Molecular genetics

Gamow, George
1955-196213 item(s)

Subject(s): Publication; Lectures, public speaking; Travel -- Invitations, arrangements; Mazia, Daniel; RNA tie club; Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Brenner, Sydney; Crick, Francis H. C.; Research support; Molecular genetics; Biographical and personal data

Gamow, George, 1904-1968.
Folder 1. ALS Cy to Alex Rich
1955-19568 items

Discusses his book; trouble with proteins; divorce; research questions; official club circular; hellix vs. solenoid entanglement of chromosomes.

Gamow, George, 1904-1968.
Folder 2. ALS Cy to Alex Rich
1958-19625 items

On writing books; son Igor; soliciting opinion on the latest pronouncement by Francis Crick, Barnett, Brenner, and Watts-Tobin concerning "The General Nature of the Genetic Code."

Herriott, Roger M..
TLS Cy to Alfred D. Hershey
1951 November 161 item

Amino acids in the phage but not in the ghosts; centrifugation of the ghosts; his own virus problem.

Subject(s): Hershey, Alfred Day; Bacteriophage and viral genetics; Laboratory techniques, equipment; Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Molecular genetics

Hershey, A. D. (Alfred Day).
TL Cy to Roger M. Herriott
1951 November 201 item

Results of the S 35 experiments; addressing Herriott's idea about the nucleic acid and Hershey's own opinion about intracellular phage.

Subject(s): Bacteriophage and viral genetics; Herriott, Roger Moss; Molecular genetics

Luria, S. E. (Salvador Edward), 1912-1991.
1952-19532 items

S35 and protein and DNA; Linus Pauling's theory.

Subject(s): Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Conferences and symposia; Pauling, Linus; Cytogenetics; Molecular genetics

Matthaei, Heinrich.
1960, n.d.8 items

Materials obtained by Heinrich Matthaei, a coworker with Dr. Marshall W. Nirenberg, who won the Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA and collected by Olby for his book, The Path to the Double Helix

Subject(s): Nirenberg, Marshall; History of biology, especially genetics; Watson, James D.; Crick, Francis H. C.; Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Mendel, Gregor; Unpublished manuscripts, notes, etc.; Cytogenetics; Molecular genetics

Meselson, Matthew.
TL Cy to Sydney Brenner and F. Jacob
1961 February 151 item

Regarding The Unstable Intermediate manuscript.

Subject(s): Molecular genetics; Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Editorial matters; Unpublished manuscripts, notes, etc. -- The Unstable Intermediate; Jacob, Francois; Brenner, Sydney

Olby, Robert C. (Robert Cecil).
Summary of Events Leading to Solution of DNA Structure
n.d.9 p.

10-page timeline.

Subject(s): Molecular genetics; Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Unpublished manuscripts, notes, etc.; History of biology, especially genetics

Pauling, Linus, 1901-1994.
TLS Cy to Dr. James Watson
1953 March 51 item

Protein conference and Pauling's new structure for the nucleic acids.

Subject(s): Delbruck, Max; Watson, James D.; Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Conferences and symposia; Cytogenetics; Molecular genetics

Rich, Alexander
1956-196318 item(s)

Subject(s): Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Molecular genetics; Cytogenetics; Pauling, Linus; Nirenberg, Marshall; Crick, Francis H. C.; Gamow, George; Laboratory techniques, equipment; Conferences and symposia; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Invitations; Biographical and personal data; Recommendations -- Warner, Jonathan

Rich, Alexander.
Folder 1
1956-19578 items

RNA backbone; WC structure for DNA; p32 labelling; measurements on various muscle protein fractions; the prospect of DNA's coding for RNA; collagen model; DNA synthesizing system; creating new polymers;

Rich, Alexander.
Folder 2. TL Cy to F. H. C. Crick
1957-19617 items

System polyinosinic acid plus polycytidylic acid; poly A coordinates; Russian collagen article; Maurice's DNA coordinates; Pauling-Coring models; Nirenberg system;

Rich, Alexander.
Folder 3. TL Cy to F. H. C. Crick
1962-19633 items

Jonathan Warner; polyribosomes; mixed crystals; NMR study of cytidine and deoxycitidine; structure of the guanine-cytosine crystal; finding another complex; in vitro incubation experiments with polyribosomes.

Watson, James D.
1953-19555 item(s)

Subject(s): Biochemistry and organic chemistry; Unpublished manuscripts, notes, etc.; Cytogenetics; Molecular genetics; Teaching -- Pauling, Linus

Watson, James Dewey.
Folder 1
1953 March2 items

Pauling's seminar.

Watson, James Dewey.
Folder 2. ALS Cy to Alex Rich
1955 March 91 item

RNA central code

Watson, James Dewey.
Miscellaneous Notes
n.d.2 items