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Antiques and collecting: The hidden founders of life's biggest secret; Harry Hawkes looks at the problems surrounding our latest stamp issue.

Byline: Harry Hawkes

Next week Royal Mail will release Britain's latest set of postage stamps marking the country's brilliant success in discovering the structure of DNA.

Yet, many may well wonder when they see the five designs whether the stamps really reflect the mind-boggling implications of the discovery - so awesome that even now, 50 years after the breakthrough at a laboratory in Cambridge, humanity still has not yet come to terms with it.

This is a very complicated subject for a stamp issue and one which, I understand, generated much debate on what approach to take. Eventually Royal Mail turned away from the artists and photographers to a newspaper cartoonist.

Peter Brookes is political cartoonist for The Times. His work is not entirely unknown to Royal Mail for in the millennium series in 1999 his design was used for the 20p stamp in The Patients' Tale.

But how do you start to design five stamps illustrating such an unbelievably vast subject as the discovery and development of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and the Human Genome Project? A microscopic picture of a string of DNA perhaps.

Sorry. This has been used already on the 19p value of The Scientists' Tale set of the Millennium Series in 1999.

What about a molecular model with plastic orbs and linking rods illustrating the geometric pattern?

This was the background for the 20p stamp in the 1996 Famous Women Europa issue by Royal Mail. The stamp itself was a tribute to the late Professor Dorothy Hodgkin who had carried out many years of pioneering research work in England.

Right. So, why is it that such a world shattering discovery as the fundamental basis for discovering the origin of life on earth does not warrant a photograph, nor even a mention of the names of the scientists who did it?

It was in February 1953 that Francis Crick walked into The Eagle public house in Cambridge and said 'We have discovered the secret of life'.

It was not, however, until April 25 that year that Crick, a British molecular biologist, and an American colleague at Cambridge University, biochemist James Watson, officially announced to the world the news of their astounding discovery.

So, you may well ask, why has Royal Mail not used a portrait of the men? Surely such an enormous scientific breakthrough with so many future applications in science and medicine warrants it? Yet not even their names are acknowledged.

The trouble, it seems, is that both men are still alive and British stamp issuing policy decrees that members of the Royal Family are the only living people allowed to feature on British stamps.

So, both Crick and Watson, who have made a scientific breakthrough likely to be the most important in our lifetime go unrecognised.

Surely this defeats the whole object of issuing the stamps? And would it not have been more seemly to the occasion not to have issued any stamps at all under these circumstances than issue five cartoons, however clever they are.

Perhaps the centenary in 2053 would have been a better time to wait for - a date for which both men will meet the essential criteria for a proper issue.

Or perhaps before that time the Stamp Advisory Committee, which vets all designs for new British stamps, will rescind completely this archaic 'Royals only' rule which pays no heed to the achievements of outstanding people of Britain.

The stamps in Second Class, First Class, E (37p basic European letter), 47p (lightweight airmail) and 68p (heavier airmail) rates will be issued on Tuesday.

A spokesman for Royal Mail said: 'The design team was conscious that a cartoonbased approach to the subject could be viewed as a too simplistic method of communicating this hugely important area of science, but perhaps that was just what was required.

'Recognising the fantastic achievements of British science in general and two scientists in particular is one thing, but the team also felt it was important to try and explain the subject, as best they could, in the most engaging and informative way possible.'

He added: 'A set of stamps based around scientific photographs or images may have looked stunning, but would have brought people no closer to what the human genome is and its role in our lives.

'Peter Brookes is well known for his ability to distil down incredibly complex subjects, drawing out the humour with well observed and detailed illustrations, enabling Royal Mail to have the ability to tackle illustrating aspects of this complex subject in an engaging and understandable way.'

Royal Mail is also producing a special Prestige Stamp Book, Microcosmos, A Guide to Inner Space which has an intriguing mixture of stamp panes made up from Northern Ireland definitives, English definitives and four European rate Secret of Life stamps. It costs pounds 6.99.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 22, 2003
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