Obituary: 'Unsung hero' of science laid the ground work for epic DNA discovery

June Lindsey, who died in Ottawa earlier this month at the age of 99, is considered by some to be one of the unsung heroes of science.

Elizabeth Payne 5 minute read November 16, 2021

When Ottawa scientist Dr. Alex MacKenzie met June Lindsey at a family birthday party in 2017, he politely asked what kind of science she had studied as a young woman.

Her answer, and his subsequent research into her work, stunned MacKenzie and led him on a quest to have Lindsey’s pivotal contribution to the discovery of DNA recognized.

Lindsey, who died in Ottawa earlier this month at the age of 99, is considered by some to be one of the unsung heroes of science. Born and educated in England, she spent most of her life raising a family and living quietly in Ottawa.

Her death has renewed calls that she be formally recognized — both at Cambridge University and in Canada — for her contribution to one of science’s greatest discoveries: DNA.

Copy photo: June Lindsey (then June Broomhead) is seen in her days at the Cavendish Laboratory. Picture courtesy of June Lindsey. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

“I would love, ultimately, for her to be known, never mind plaques and prizes,” said MacKenzie, a molecular biologist at the CHEO Research Institute. “Just if, when one speaks about the double helix, people were aware of her contribution.”

That contribution is significant. The structural work she completed for her PhD thesis was seen as essential to the discovery of the double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick just four years later in 1953.

When MacKenzie Googled Lindsey’s doctoral work, soon after meeting her, the hair stood up on the back of his neck. “I knew that was a central piece in the double helix.” He found others over the years who were concerned that she had not been recognized.

Publicly, Lindsey tended to be self-effacing about her work, saying during a 2019 interview: “I don’t think about it.”

But in the weeks before her death, she told MacKenzie that his efforts to shine light on the significance of her work had changed her life.

Born in a small Yorkshire village, June Broomhead, as she was then, was the first girl from her school to attend Cambridge University on a full scholarship. She excelled at physics and math, but since girls were not taught Latin at the time, she needed tutoring from a teacher at the local boys’ grammar school in order to qualify.

She completed her undergraduate studies in 1944 at Cambridge’s Newnham Women’s College, but it would be 50 years before she was granted a BA. When she finished school, Cambridge did not grant degrees to women. She later said that her heart was in Cambridge.

Copy photo: June Lindsey completed her undergraduate studies in 1944 at Cambridge’s Newnham Women’s College, but it would be 50 years before she was granted a BA. Picture courtesy of June Lindsey. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

After a stint teaching, Lindsey returned to her beloved Cambridge to pursue a PhD, working in the storied Cavendish Laboratory where Crick and Watson would discover DNA — for which they won a Nobel Prize in 1962.

Using a technique called X-ray crystallography, she worked out the physical structures of adenine and guanine, two chemical compounds known as purines, which are the largest and most complex of the four nucleic acids that make up DNA.

That structural information proved to be essential for the later discovery of the zipper-like structure of DNA’s double helix.

In fact, her doctoral work described an interaction known as a hydrogen bond. In his book The Double Helix, Watson describes how looking at her work led to his epiphany about the structure of DNA.

“I was drawing the fused rings of adenine on paper. Suddenly I realized the potentially profound implications of a DNA structure in which the adenine residue formed hydrogen bonds similar to those found in crystals of pure adenine.” Watson had realized the hydrogen bonds could serve as the zipper for the two nucleic acid strands, making up the double helix.

Over the following three days, using metal models based in part on Lindsey’s molecular dimensions, Watson arrived at the final double helix structure.

Copy photo: June Lindsey’s (then June Broomhead) PhD thesis. Picture courtesy of June Lindsey. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

Lindsey also worked at Oxford University and the National Research Council in Ottawa, discovering the structures of vitamin B12, morphine and codeine.

She met her husband, Canadian George Lindsey, at the Cavendish Laboratory when they were both working on PhDs. He was studying nuclear physics. A polymath, George Lindsey, who was related to William Lyon Mackenzie, did military defence work during the Cold War and, among other things, helped to create sabermetrics, featured in the movie Moneyball.

June Lindsey, who firmly believed women could either have a career or a family, but not both, gave up work to concentrate on raising their children, Robin and Jane. Robin is a professor in the operations and logistics division of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. Jane is a senior research scientist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Jane Lindsey said her mother didn’t think what she did was that special. “She was just doing her PhD. I don’t think she thinks she deserved any recognition.”

But many others do.

And while Lindsey’s contemporary at Cambridge, Rosalind Franklin, has now been recognized for her contribution to the discovery of DNA with plaques and buildings and prizes named after her, Lindsey has not. MacKenzie and others maintain Lindsey’s work was more crucial to the discovery of DNA.

A cameo of June Broomhead has, however, been written into a script for a movie about Franklin, should that ever be made, say her children.

MacKenzie said it is difficult to overstate how critical Lindsey’s work was to the discovery of DNA and how egregious it is that she has not been recognized.

The double helix was one of the most important puzzle-solvings of the 20th century, potentially in all of history, he said. “And June Lindsey described the pieces of that jigsaw puzzle and showed how they might be linked together.”


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