Million-page story of modern genetics launched by the Wellcome Library

The papers of the pioneers of modern genetics - including Francis Crick, James D Watson, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin - have been collected together for the first time and made freely available in a £3.9 million digitisation project from the Wellcome Library.

Codebreakers: Makers of modern genetics, which launches today at wellcomelibrary.org/codebreakers, contains more than one million pages of first-hand notes, letters, sketches, lectures, photographs and essays from the circle of brilliant minds responsible for uncovering the structure of DNA. The site lays bare the personal and professional thoughts, rivalries, blind alleys and breakthroughs of the scientists whose ideas transformed our understanding of the matter of life.

Drawing on five partner archives in the USA, London, Cambridge and Glasgow and the Wellcome Library's own holdings, Codebreakers offers an unparalleled and comprehensive primary resource for researchers and curious minds across the world and is launched ahead of the 60th anniversary of Crick and Watson's seminal 'Nature' paper revealing the structure of DNA. It holds the stories behind the discovery, which has shaped our genetic age, from diagnosis to drug development and from forensics to food production, and which lies at the heart of today's biomedical research.

The vast collections contain iconic documents - such as Crick's preliminary sketches of the double helix and Franklin's X-ray diffraction 'photo 51' - and everyday exchanges. The biological revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, together with their legacies in the fields of medical genetics and genomics, are recorded in the scientists' own words and placed in the context of earlier research into the links between heredity and health, including the archives of the Eugenics Society, one of the most influential scientific organisations of the early 20th century.

Codebreakers sits within an entirely redesigned Wellcome Library website, and a new media player allows the close reading, downloading and embedding of digitised files. The content is free to all, and users can log in using Library membership, Facebook or Twitter accounts. A timeline and essays on key individuals and research groups offer navigational aids through the records.

Codebreakers is a collaborative project, uniting collections from five internationally important centres. Working with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Churchill Archives Centre Cambridge, the University of Glasgow, King's College London and UCL, the digitised papers of James D Watson, Rosalind Franklin, Sydney Brenner, Lionel Penrose, J B S Haldane, Guido Pontecorvo, James Harrison Renwick, Malcolm Ferguson-Smith and Maurice Wilkins have been made available. They join material from the Wellcome Library's own holdings, including the papers of Francis Crick, Fred Sanger, Arthur Ernest Mourant, Peter Medawar, Hans Grüneberg, Honor Fell and Gerard Wyatt.

Users exploring the site will find treasures of beauty - such as Honor Fell's minutely observed cell drawings - and import, including richly annotated holographs of key papers and lectures unlocking the secrets of DNA. The archives are full of candid correspondence, keen professional insight and moving personal items, such as Peter Medawar's self-portraits, which were drawn after suffering a stroke.

Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library says: "Codebreakers reveals the extraordinarily convoluted networks of influence, insight and inspiration that lie behind crucial moments of scientific discovery. It is a project made possible by a creative partnership with five outstanding libraries and archives, sharing a goal of free and open access. Together, our collections offer an extraordinarily rich research resource documenting one of the most significant periods of scientific innovation in human history."

The Wellcome Library's Codebreakers project is the first phase of a major digitisation programme that will create integrated online content, featuring digitised books, archives, films, photographs and audio covering every aspect of the history of medicine and biomedical science. A further half million pages will be added to Codebreakers over the next six months, and £5.8 million has been set aside for the next phase of the Library's digitisation plans, which focus on material relating to neurology and mental health. The Library itself is also expanding as part of a £17.5-million development of Wellcome Collection due for completion in summer 2014.

Material digitised for Codebreakers includes:

From the Wellcome Library:

The archive of Francis Crick (1916-2004), featuring extensive files of correspondence, scientific notes, writings in draft, laboratory notebooks, and papers over a period of more than 50 years, tracing both the emergence of molecular biology as a scientific discipline and Crick's central role as a scientific theorist.

The Biochemical Society: laboratory notebooks of Fred Sanger (1918-) from the 1940s to the 1980s, detailing the elaborate molecular structure of insulin and the development of the first DNA sequencing technique. The archive of Arthur Ernest Mourant (1904-1994), a geologist, chemist, haematologist and geneticist, comprising extensive papers from 1919 to 1996 that reveal his contribution to the study of human blood groups and their distribution.

From Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory:

From the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge:

From King's College London:

From the University of Glasgow Archives Service:

From UCL: