ABC of multiple authorship

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 13 May 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:1236
  1. Grant L Hutchison

    From time to time someone's name appears at the head of a research paper to which they have had not the slightest input.1 There are many possible reasons for this. Perhaps the authors are members of a publication syndicate; or the accessory author is being complimented, or bribed; or the professor has exercised the modern day equivalent of droit de seigneur. One case is unique, however. It is widely known to those in the field and equally widely forgiven. To describe it adequately I must first introduce three physicists.

    Hans Bethe was born in Strasbourg in 1906 when the town was part of Germany. He fled from the Nazis in 1935 and joined the staff of Cornell University. He became a major figure in nuclear physics during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1938 he worked out the details of the nuclear fusion reactions which power the stars, for which he subsequently received a Nobel prize. He was rumoured to have performed the necessary calculations on the back of an envelope during a boring train journey from Washington to New York.

    George Gamow was born in Odessa in 1904. He learnt his physics in Europe under Bohr and Rutherford, and emigrated to the United States in 1934 to take up a post at the George Washington University, Washington DC. He made extensive contributions to nuclear physics, and in 1954 was the first person to suggest that the genetic code consisted of triplets of nucleotides. He was an ebullient, larger than life character, who was known for his sense of humour and practical jokes. He published (and illustrated) two books concerning the misadventures of a character called Mr Tompkins, in which he described relativity and quantum mechanics for a lay readership. He and Bethe were good friends: it was a conference that Gamow organised in Washington which inspired Bethe to begin work on the nuclear physics of stars. It was Gamow, too, who originated the tale that Bethe had worked out all the details on the train journey home.

    Ralph Alpher was a graduate student, who was working towards his PhD under Gamow's supervision in the late 1940s. Gamow had realised that during the first few hundred seconds of the big bang matter would be sufficiently hot and densely packed that nuclear fusion reactions would take place. Alpher's job was to work out the details of this, drawing on Bethe's earlier work concerning fusion in stars.

    Alpher's PhD thesis was submitted early in 1948. At the same time he and Gamow decided to send a letter to Physical Review to announce their findings to a wider public. Alpher was baffled to find his supervisor intended to add Bethe's name to the author list. Bethe, after all, had contributed nothing to the paper that merited more than a mention among the references.

    To Gamow's delight their letter was published on 1 April: Alpher RA, Bethe H, Gamow G. Physical Review 1948;73(7):803-4.

    Hans Bethe is probably the only person ever to be credited with authorship solely for the sake of a pun on the Greek alphabet.—GRANT L HUTCHISON is a consultant anaesthetist in Dundee


    1. 1.
    View Abstract

    Sign in

    Log in through your institution

    Free trial

    Register for a free trial to to receive unlimited access to all content on for 14 days.
    Sign up for a free trial