Watson and Crick discover chemical structure of DNA

On February 28, 1953, Cambridge University scientists James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick announce that they have determined the double-helix structure of DNA, the molecule containing human genes.

Though DNA—short for deoxyribonucleic acid—was discovered in 1869, its crucial role in determining genetic inheritance wasn’t demonstrated until 1943. In the early 1950s, Watson and Crick were only two of many scientists working on figuring out the structure of DNA. California chemist Linus Pauling suggested an incorrect model at the beginning of 1953, prompting Watson and Crick to try and beat Pauling at his own game. 

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On the morning of February 28, they determined that the structure of DNA was a double-helix polymer, or a spiral of two DNA strands, each containing a long chain of monomer nucleotides, wound around each other. According to their findings, DNA replicated itself by separating into individual strands, each of which became the template for a new double helix. In his best-selling book, The Double Helix (1968), Watson later claimed that Crick announced the discovery by walking into the nearby Eagle Pub and blurting out that “we had found the secret of life.” The truth wasn’t that far off, as Watson and Crick had solved a fundamental mystery of science–how it was possible for genetic instructions to be held inside organisms and passed from generation to generation.

Watson and Crick’s solution was formally announced on April 25, 1953, following its publication in that month’s issue of Nature magazine. The article revolutionized the study of biology and medicine. Among the developments that followed directly from it were pre-natal screening for disease genes; genetically engineered foods; the ability to identify human remains; the rational design of treatments for diseases such as AIDS; and the accurate testing of physical evidence in order to convict or exonerate criminals.

Crick and Watson later had a falling-out over Watson’s book, which Crick felt misrepresented their collaboration and betrayed their friendship. A larger controversy arose over the use Watson and Crick made of research done by another DNA researcher, Rosalind Franklin, whose colleague Maurice Wilkins showed her X-ray photographic work to Watson just before he and Crick made their famous discovery. When Crick and Watson won the Nobel Prize in 1962, they shared it with Wilkins. Franklin, who died in 1958 of ovarian cancer and was thus ineligible for the award, never learned of the role her photos played in the historic scientific breakthrough.

ATF raids Branch Davidian compound

At Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas, agents of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) launch a raid against the Branch Davidian compound as part of an investigation into illegal possession of firearms and explosives by the Christian cult. 

As the agents attempted to penetrate the complex, gunfire erupted, beginning an extended gun battle that left four ATF agents dead and 15 wounded. Six Branch Davidians were fatally wounded, and several more were injured, including David Koresh, the cult’s founder and leader. After 45 minutes of shooting, the ATF agents withdrew, and a cease-fire was negotiated over the telephone. The operation, which involved more than 100 ATF agents, was the one of the largest ever mounted by the bureau and resulted in the highest casualties of any ATF operation.

David Koresh was born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston, Texas, in 1959. In 1981, he joined the Branch Davidians, a sect of the Seventh Day Adventist Church founded in 1934 by a Bulgarian immigrant named Victor Houteff. Koresh, who possessed an exhaustive knowledge of the Bible, rapidly rose in the hierarchy of the small religious community, eventually entering into a power struggle with the Davidians’ leader, George Roden.

For a short time, Koresh retreated with his followers to eastern Texas, but in late 1987 he returned to Mount Carmel with seven armed followers and raided the compound, severely wounding Roden. Koresh went on trial for attempted murder, but the charge was dropped after his case was declared a mistrial. By 1990, he was the leader of the Branch Davidians and legally changed his name to David Koresh, with David representing his status as head of the biblical House of David, and Koresh standing for the Hebrew name for Cyrus, the Persian king who allowed the Jews held captive in Babylon to return to Israel.

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Koresh took several wives at Mount Carmel and fathered at least 12 children from these women, several of whom were as young as 12 or 13 when they became pregnant. There is also evidence that Koresh may have harshly disciplined some of the 100 or so Branch Davidians living inside the compound, particularly his children. A central aspect of Koresh’s religious teachings was his assertion that the apocalyptic events predicted in the Bible’s book of Revelation were imminent, making it necessary, he asserted, for the Davidians to stockpile weapons and explosives in preparation.

Following the unsuccessful ATF raid, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) took over the situation. A standoff with the Branch Davidians stretched into seven weeks, and little progress was made in the telephone negotiations as the Davidians had stockpiled years of food and other necessities before the raid.

On April 18, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved a tear-gas assault on the compound, and at approximately 6:00 a.m. on April 19 the Branch Davidians were informed of the imminent attack and asked to surrender, which they did not. A few minutes later, two FBI combat vehicles began inserting gas into the building and were joined by Bradley tanks, which fired tear-gas canisters through the compound’s windows. The Branch Davidians, many with gas masks on, refused to evacuate, and by 11:40 a.m. the last of some 100 tear-gas canisters was fired into the compound. Just after noon, a fire erupted at one or more locations on the compound, and minutes later nine Davidians fled the rapidly spreading blaze. Gunfire was reported but ceased as the compound was completely engulfed by the flames.

Koresh and at least 80 of his followers, including 22 children, died during the federal government’s second disastrous assault on Mount Carmel. The FBI and Justice Department maintained there was conclusive evidence that the Branch Davidian members ignited the fire, citing an eyewitness account and various forensic data. Of the gunfire reported during the fire, the government argued that the Davidians were either killing each other as part of a suicide pact or were killing dissenters who attempted to escape the Koresh-ordered suicide by fire. Most of the surviving Branch Davidians contested this official position, as do some critics in the press and elsewhere, whose charges against the ATF and FBI’s handling of the Waco standoff ranged from incompetence to premeditated murder. In 1999, the FBI admitted that they used tear-gas grenades in the assault, which have been known to cause fires because of their incendiary properties.

READ MORE: What Happened to the Branch Davidians After Waco?

Getty Museum endowed

On February 28, 1982, the J. Paul Getty Museum becomes the most richly endowed museum on earth when it receives a $1.2 billion bequest left to it by the late J. Paul Getty. The American oil billionaire died in 1976, but legal wrangling over his fortune by his children and ex-wives kept his will in probate until 1982. During those six years, what was a originally a $700 million bequest to the museum nearly doubled. By 2000, the endowment was worth $5 billion–even after the trust spent nearly $1 billion in the 1990s on the construction of a massive museum and arts education complex in Los Angeles.

Jean Paul Getty, born in Minneapolis in 1892, built his fortune through the accumulation of oil companies. He began collecting artworks in the 1930s, preferring Renaissance and Baroque paintings and French furniture, and displaying them in his ranch house in Malibu, California. In 1954, he formally opened the J. Paul Getty Museum, which occupied a specially built wing of his Malibu home. Later, his collection outgrew the ranch, so Getty built a new museum in Malibu. The new Getty Museum was modeled after Villa dei Papiri, a Roman villa uncovered in the town of Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It was completed in 1974, but Getty, who lived mostly in England after World War II, died before he could return to Malibu to see it in person. His coffin was sent back to California, and he was buried near his museum on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

In leaving a third of his fortune to the J. Paul Getty Museum, his only stipulation was that the fortune be used “for the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge.” This gave the museum extraordinary freedom–an unusual legacy from a man who in his life had sought absolute control over his affairs. The laws governing trusts, however, indicate that the museum must spend 4.25 percent of its endowment three out of every four years in order to retain its tax-exempt status. In the first year after its endowment, that figure equaled $54 million; today the amount the museum must spend three out of four years is more than $200 million. The J. Paul Getty Museum’s greatest challenge, therefore, is finding enough art and culture to buy–but not too much that other museums accuse the Getty of hoarding the world’s masterpieces.

The museum spent a good chunk of its endowment in the construction of the Getty Center, a six-building complex set on a hilltop in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. The $1 billion complex opened in December 1997. Fourteen years in the making, the Getty Center includes a large museum, a research institute and library, an art conservation institute, a digital information institute, an arts education institute, a museum management school, and a grant program center. The buildings were designed in a modernist style by American architect Richard Meier.

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First NATO Military Action

In the first military action in the 45-year history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), U.S. fighter planes shoot down four Serbian warplanes engaged in a bombing mission in violation of Bosnia’s no-fly zone.

The United States, 10 European countries, and Canada founded NATO in 1949 as a safeguard against Soviet aggression. With the end of the Cold War, NATO members approved the use of its military forces for peacekeeping missions in countries outside the alliance and in 1994 agreed to enforce U.N. resolutions enacted to bring about an end to the bloody conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In 1994 and 1995, NATO planes enforced the no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina and struck at Bosnian Serb military positions and airfields on a number of occasions.

On December 20, 1995, NATO began the mass deployment of 60,000 troops to enforce the Dayton peace accords, signed in Paris by the leaders of the former Yugoslavia on December 14. The NATO troops took over from a U.N. peacekeeping force that had failed to end the fighting since its deployment in early 1992, although the U.N. troops had proved crucial in the distribution of humanitarian aid to the impoverished population of Bosnia. The NATO force, with its U.S. support and focused aim of enforcing the Dayton agreement, proved more successful in maintaining the peace in the war-torn region.

Pope Benedict resigns

On February 28, 2013, less than three weeks after making the unexpected announcement that he would step down, 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI officially resigns. Citing advanced age as the reason for giving up his post as the leader of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church, Benedict was the first pontiff to relinquish power in nearly 600 years. Two weeks after Benedict resigned, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected pope.

The son of a policeman, Benedict was born Joseph Ratzinger in the village of Marktl in Bavaria, Germany, on April 16, 1927. During World War II, he was drafted into the German military, which he deserted toward the end of the war. He was held as a POW by Allied forces for a short time in 1945. Ratzinger went on to be ordained into the priesthood in 1951. Afterward, he served as a professor of theology at several German universities until 1977, when he was appointed the archbishop of Munich and Freising; later that year he was elevated to cardinal. From 1981 to 2005, Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a powerful Vatican office responsible for enforcing Catholic doctrine. In that role, he earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler.”

On April 19, 2005, following the death of Pope John Paul II, the 78-year-old Ratzinger was elected the 265th pope. During his eight-year papacy, Benedict championed a conservative agenda while also contending with scandals involving clergy sex-abuse and corruption at the Vatican Bank.

On February 11, 2013, Benedict, the oldest person elected to the papacy since the 18th century, announced he would resign, saying he no longer had the mental and physical strength required to lead one of the world’s largest religious organizations. The move was all but unprecedented, as until that point all popes of the modern era had remained in office until death. The last pope to resign, Gregory XII, did so in 1415 to end a civil war in the church called the Great Western Schism. Prior to that, in 1294, Pope Celestine V quit after just five months in the job (he hoped to return to his life as a hermit but instead his successor had him imprisoned and he died in captivity).

On March 13, 2013, white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel indicated that a conclave of Catholic cardinals had elected a new pope, the 76-year-old Bergoglio. Six days later, in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, he was inaugurated as the Catholic Church’s 266th pontiff. The first South American to helm the church and the first non-European to do so in more than 1,200 years, he also was the first pope to take the name Francis and the first member of the Jesuit order to become pontiff. Francis soon distinguished himself for his humble style (among other things, he opted to live in a Vatican guesthouse rather than the regal papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, where, for more than a century, his predecessors resided) and for his vision for a church focused less on divisive social issues and more on serving the poor and oppressed.

After retiring, Benedict, whose title became pope emeritus, moved into a former convent inside Vatican City.

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