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Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2014 Jun;46:1-14. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2013.12.006. Epub 2014 Feb 22.

Ray Wu as Fifth Business: Deconstructing collective memory in the history of DNA sequencing.

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History Programme, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, 14 Nanyang Dr., Singapore 637332, Singapore. Electronic address:


The concept of 'Fifth Business' is used to analyze a minority standpoint and bring serious attention to the role of scientists who play a galvanizing role in a science but for multiple reasons appear less prominently in more common recounts of any particular development. Biochemist Ray Wu (1928-2008) published a DNA sequencing experiment in March 1970 using DNA polymerase catalysis and specific nucleotide labeling, both of which are foundational to general sequencing methods today. The scant mention of Wu's work from textbooks, research articles, and other accounts of DNA sequencing calls into question how scientific collective memory forms. This alternative history seeks to understand why a key figure in nucleic acid sequence analysis has remained less visibly connected or peripheral to solidifying narratives about the history of DNA sequencing. The study resists predictable dismissals of Wu's work in order to seriously examine the formation of his nucleic acid sequence analysis research program and how he shared his knowledge of sequencing during a period of rapid advancement in the field. An analysis of Wu's work on sequencing the cohesive ends of lambda bacteriophage in the 1960s and 1970s exemplifies how a variety of individuals and groups attempted to develop protocol for sequencing the order of nucleotide base pairs comprising DNA. This historical examination of the sociality of scientific research suggests a way to understand how Wu and others contributed to the very collective memory of DNA sequencing that Wu eventually tried to repair. The study of Wu, who was a Chinese immigrant to the United States, provides a foundation for further critical scholarship on the heterogeneous histories of Asian American bioscientists, the sociality of their scientific works, and how the resulting knowledge produced is preserved, if not evenly, in a scientific field's collective memory.


Bacteriophage lambda biochemistry; Chinese American scientists; DNA sequencing; Minorities in science; Ray Wu

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