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Julia Sheppard, Head of Special Collections. Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London

"Molecular Biology: the issues surrounding the purchase of the archives of leading molecular biologists by an American collector"

The Wellcome Trust is a charity which supports medical research and the history of medicine. It has an internationally important library which, amongst other things, holds many archives and manuscripts. These include the papers of Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA.

We are in the middle of a story which has yet to have an ending written.

Chapter 1: Troubles

In 1974 the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre, now the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre (NCUACS), made an approach to Sir Aaron Klug, an executor of the estate of Rosalind Franklin, to elicit his support in the preservation and cataloguing of her papers. Nothing came of this.

On 5 March 2000 Brenda Maddox published an article in a major British Sunday newspaper, The Observer, on ‘The Dark lady of DNA?’.  Maddox is in process of writing a biography of Franklin, who some people think was unfairly overlooked when the Nobel prizes for the discovery of DNA were made.  Maddox mentioned that ‘an archive for the history of molecular biology is now being assembled by the Norman Publishing Company in San Francisco. Its representative... Al Seckel, a cognitive neuroscientist from the California Institute of Technology [CIT]... has already acquired papers, correspondence and lab notebooks of many eminent scientists, including Franklin, Crick, Klug, Gosling and Max Perutz, and is keen for more’.

This led to concern in the UK amongst archivists and an exchange of correspondence involving the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (HMC), the NCUACS, Al Seckel and Sir Aaron Klug (in his role as President of the Royal Society). Klug stated:

‘I have been given assurances by Mr Seckel on behalf of Dr Norman that the collection is intended finally to be donated to a major academic institution in the US where they would be securely kept and free access would be given to researchers, as I understand, Brenda Maddox was given. The collection is being made of molecular biologists world-wide so that it will be easy for future historians or researchers to find most of the material under one roof’ (Klug to Lord Bingham HMC, 21 March 2000).

Seckel wrote:

‘In fact I have purchased major scientific archives from American, Australian, French, Norwegian, German, and Dutch scientists as well. After all, molecular biology is an international enterprise and cannot possibly be confined to one country, no matter how important their individual contributions may be’ (Seckel, CIT, to P. Harper NCUACS, 2 April 2000).

Concern nevertheless continued as to the activities and their outcome.  On 14 June 2001 Rex Dalton wrote an article in Nature (vol 411, pp 732-733) noting that: ‘some historians are uneasy about such valuable resource resting in private hands... But Norman insists that the molecular biology archive will never be traded. Eventually, he says, it will be donated to a public institution - possibly his alma mater, the University of California, Berkley’.  One of Norman’s defences, Dalton said, was that had institutions preserved the papers, he wouldn’t have been able to buy them.  UK archivists Peter Harper (NCUACS) and Julia Sheppard (Wellcome Library) responded in a letter to Nature (13 September 2001, vol 413, p108) arguing that science archives should remain in public hands, that there were indeed institutions and bodies doing what they could to preserve such papers, that long-term such collections were best housed in their country of origin, and that archivists struggling to maintain their budgets in a competitive world needed the recognition by scientists of this principle.

Chapter 2: Francis Crick’s papers

In December 2002 the Wellcome Trust was alerted, via his fellow Nobel prize-winner James Watson and others, to Francis Crick’s negotiations with Norman. With the help of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant it purchased Crick’s papers for the nation (with copyright after Crick’s death), at a cost of £1.8 million ($2.5m).  The University of California has copies of the collection. Access for scholars was guaranteed. Crick, interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune (Neil Morgan 12 Dec 2001), commented:

‘the world seems made up of three kinds of people: Collectors who collect and don’t always much care what. Scholars, who hoard every scrap of paper. And people like myself, who wonder why’.

The collection is in the process of being catalogued at the Wellcome Library and parts of it are now accessible. Progress reports can be seen on the Wellcome’s website

Chapter 3: Outrage

News breaks that Norman has decided to sell the ‘archive’ at auction via Christies New York. Rumours quote sums of $3.5m.  General outcry ensues: donors, their executors and sellers of material to Seckel/Norman are outraged, and archivists and historians are deeply distressed. Nobody had been told this was about happen and no institution had been approached to purchase the archive as a whole first. Seckel is also furious and pressure is put on Norman and Christie’s to stop the sale. More publicity follows. ‘Our DNA heritage goes on the block’ was the headline article in the Daily Telegraph (Maddox, 5 February 2003,Daily Telegraph); ‘Fury at plan to split historic biology archive’ (Rex Dalton, Nature, 6 February 2003, p.564).

The HMC, NCUACS, Wellcome, and other major institutions in the UK holding papers of molecular biology archives and personal papers of scientists, held a meeting at the Royal Society on 20 February 2003, chaired by Lord May of Oxford (President of the Royal Society), to discuss the issues around saving these papers from sale and trying to bring them back to the UK.

Chapter 4: The future?

The sale is cancelled (Nature, 13 March 2003, vol 422, p 102). It is not yet clear whether the ‘archive’ will be sold by private treaty, whether to the UK or in the USA. Although a catalogue is still not yet available, the material includes many reprints and it is also evident that they are not strictly an ‘archive’, but an accumulation of molecular biologists’ papers from many individuals. It is hoped that the provenance of these papers has been properly recorded.

The rest of this chapter remains to be written and at present we have no idea whether it will be a happy ending, but certainly the story is not a happy one.

Observations on this saga

1. The cost of modern scientific papers now and in the future.

The amounts of money are startling and not ones that most archive repositories and libraries can afford, certainly not frequently. It would seem that this is a comparatively recent situation, at present mainly affecting the USA and UK, but will this spread?

2. The international nature of modern science.

Is this a case that undermines the arguments for retaining archives in their country of origin? And following on from this, where does digitisation fit? If material can be available in a digitised format via the web, does it matter if it is not allocated together or where it is located? Many scientists would think not. It is for archivists to explain the problems associated with this.

3. The naivety of many of the individuals concerned.

Most of the scientists involved failed to recognise the pitfalls of dealing with private dealers. They showed a lack of awareness of the interests and concerns of the historian or archivist, and an ignorance of what constitutes an archive and the integrity of that archive.


There is a potentially happier sequel to this story. The human genome, as we all know, has now been sequenced. Much of the work was done at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Centre in the UK. Sir John Sulston, Nobel prize-winner for this work, has kindly agreed to donate his papers to the Wellcome Library. Indeed he was delighted to do so and is keen to do his best to assist in preventing future sales of such papers. Lord May has indicated a similar desire to assist the archivist and historians save material from sales.

It is clear that one way ahead for archivists and historians is to work with such eminent scientists, to take their concern and use it to build bridges with the scientific community. If we can inform scientists about the issues outlined and to try to prevent papers such as these appearing on the market or being broken up and dispersed, we are doing something positive to prevent sagas like this being repeated.

Dr Seckel has responded to this article.  His response may be viewed here.

Response to: ‘Molecular Biology: the issues surrounding the purchase of the archives of leading molecular biologists by an American collector’ by Dr Al Seckel

I would like the opportunity to respond to certain comments made in a recent posted publication regarding the controversy over the molecular biology archive/collection that I assembled on behalf of Jeremy Norman.

It should be noted that this project was conceived solely by me some years ago, after a discussion with Francis Crick, which revealed that some key manuscripts in the history of molecular biology were beginning to be traded in the antiquarian book market. I, personally, have a great passion for the intellectual history of ideas, and did not want see the tragedy repeated

that happened to the scientific archives of many prominent physicists of the 20th century, whose papers had been scattered to the winds, and used as highly prized scientific relics sought after by a few collectors.

I wanted to stop this from happening. Normal funding through standard academic channels and established institutions was impossible, and met with a complete lack of interest. Time was of the essence. My idea was to collect the papers together in one location that would be accessible to scholars, and then have the collection properly catalogued, and donated to an established institution. I was working successfully and quietly behind the scenes to raise the funds to purchase both the Norman and Crick papers and have the whole archive donated freely to the California Institute of Technology, which currently has the Einstein papers project. This project fell through upon the sale of the Crick papers to the Wellcome.

The idea of patrons building major collections of important works and then donating them is not a novel or necessarily a dangerous concept.  Benevolent patrons have been largely responsible for most of the major collections found in art museums today, and this is true of libraries as well.  Furthermore, we were providing very fair compensation to the scientists for their works, which institutions, being at a loss for just working capital could not afford. Recently, I worked a deal with a patron who purchased the entire scientific archives of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr Murray Gell-Mann, and then promptly donated them in their entirety to Caltech, which had refused to pay anything to Dr. Gell-Mann, in spite of their great desire to have them. So, in the end, Dr. Gell-Mann got fair compensation for his papers, Caltech got the papers freely with no strings attached, and the donor a nice tax deduction. A win-win for all around, which was what I was trying to achieve by assembling this molecular biology archive.

An important fact that was neglected by Sheppard's article concerns the very positive service that I served in locating  innumerable lost historical documents, which shed a tremendous amount of light on various issues.  Furthermore, in many cases, scientists were about to dispose of their archives because no one was interested in them (in one significant case, one scientist was about to throw out everything the next week and these papers were very significant). One prominent English Nobel Prize winner had already thrown out a large portion of his scientific work, because no one was interested in preserving them. Where were the archivists then? It is too easy to be the critic after the fact, rather than be a visionary at the beginning.  Libraries, archivists, and established institutions are not necessarily known for their speed at making things happen.

With regard to the comment that the scientists were naive in selling their papers to a private party, it should be clearly understood that the scientists sold their archives, not based on only oral communications, but on written contracts that specifically stated the conditions that would constrain the preservation of their papers as an entirety with the rest of the collections. This is a very important fact. The scientists were very careful, and not naive as erroneously stated by Sheppard.

In fact, it is precisely because of these very specific contracts, as well as an enormous amount of supporting correspondence between myself and Norman, witnesses, etc. that I was able to quickly stop the sale at Christies, and legally enforce (at my own expense) the upholding of these contracts. My intentions and vision with regard to this project have always been clear.

Granted, there was a controversy over Norman's breach of the contracts, which I only found out about when a reporter from Nature informed me of the upcoming sale. Nevertheless, the only exact science that I know of is hindsight, and therefore the scientists are not to blame for the unfortunate unilateral actions of Norman. It is because the scientists (and I) were careful, that this matter will be cured, and in a way that I strongly believe will have a happy ending. We are working toward that end now.