History of Visualization of Biological Macromolecules

On-line Museum



Stereoscopic illustration of the alpha-helix produced with ORTEP

Created in FORTRAN by Carroll K. Johnson, of the Oak Ridge National Laborotory (ORNL), and first released in 1965, ORTEP (Oak Ridge Thermal-Ellipsoid Plot Program) rapidly became a favorite of crystallographers and protein crytallographers to produce illustrations of structures for conference presentations and publications. A key strength of ORTEP was its capacity to generate stereoscopic images automatically. ORTEP 2 was released in 1976 and ORTEP 3 in 1996. The latter is still available from the official ORTEP website.

A description of ORTEP and instructions for its use were published in an ONRL report (see abstract of the report). This document is certainly one of the most miscited in the scientific literature: a careful examination of Science Citation Index (WOS) reveals over 10 000 citations(!) under 60 slightly different titles.

The release of ORTEP was covered by the ORNL internal newsletter ("The News"). The article by Bill Felknor, with photographs, is reproduced here (original courtesy of Carroll K. Johnson).

In 1966, C. K. Johnson produced stereoscopic drawings of myoglobin, vitamin B-12 coenzyme and poly-L-alanine for presentation at the Second International Biophysics Congress (September 5-9, 1966, Vienna, Austria). A reproduction of these drawings gives a good indication of ORTEP's capabilities. This was a time when protein crystallographers were just becoming able to determine the structure of proteins and they clearly appreciated that ORTEP could facilitate the interpretation and publication of their results (see for example John Kendrew's reaction to the drawings of myoglobin produced by Johhnson) (originals courtesy of Carroll K. Johnson).


Johnson Carroll K, 1965. "OR TEP: A FORTRAN Thermal-Ellipsoid Plot Program for Crystal Structure Illustrations". ONRL Report #3794. Oak Ridge, Ten., Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (back)

(Back to Visualization of Biological Macromolecules On-Line Museum)

Page created by Eric Francoeur (eric.francoeur.net)

Comments and suggestions

Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science