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James D. Watson


A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This book complements that written by the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick. Like Crick, Watson gives us a very personal and readable account. It is very much a young man's book— Watson was in his early twenties at the time when these events occurred. He, of course, is American, and there are some amusing comments on life in postwar Britain, with continuing scarcity of food and lack of adequate heating in houses.

At the beginning of the story Watson was on a Fellowship from the USA which funded him to do post-doctoral work in Copenhagen on bacterial viruses and genetics. His decision to move to Cambridge to study X-ray crystallography was not received well at home, but he went anyway, and there met Crick, who comes across as an ebullient and irrepressible character with a gift for annoying people, especially Sir Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory.

The book is as much about the personalities of the people who figure in the story as it is about the science itself. Prominent among these, apart from Crick, are Rosalind Franklin ('Rosy'), her boss Maurice Wilkins, who shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 with Watson and Crick, and - largely off-stage but always important— Linus Pauling.

Rosy's research on the X-ray crystallography of DNA was vital to the eventual elucidation of the structure of DNA, but she was difficult to work with and was barely on speaking terms with Wilkins. At one point she nearly attacked Watson physically. Finally, however, his relations with her improved considerably, and in retrospect he recognises that her attitude was largely the result of the prejudice she encountered as a woman doing first-class science in the Cambridge of the 1950s. Tragically, she died at the age of 37, of cancer.

Watson and Crick made use of models to help them visualise the DNA molecule. So, too, did Pauling, who was also working on the structure in the USA. His model had three strands. He produced this shortly before Watson and Crick had completed their version, but luckily for them Linus included an error which made his idea definitely wrong. Watson and Crick hurried to complete their model before Pauling could put things right in his. Shortly after they made their announcement of success, Pauling visited Cambridge and generously congratulated them on their achievement.

Watson writes frankly about his reactions to the people he encountered at Cambridge, including Bragg, who gets rather rough treatment. Nevertheless. Bragg provides a foreword to the book, in which he writes that those who figure in it "must read it in a very forgiving spirit".

This book should certainly be read by anyone with an interest in the history of modern science. It is unfortunate that it lacks an index; many people are referred to only by their first names after their initial introduction and it can be difficult at times to remember who is who.

6 February 2011

%T The Double Helix
%S A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA
%A Watson, James D.
%I Weidenfeld and Nicolson
%C London
%D 1968
%P xiv+226pp
%K biology, biography
%O Illustrated

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