Twists in the Tale of the Great DNA Discovery

Anyone seeking to understand modern biology and genomics could do much worse than start with the discovery of the structure of DNA, on which almost everything else is based. The classic account of the discovery, “The Double Helix,” by James D. Watson, was first published in 1968 and has now been reissued in an annotated and illustrated edition.
Strangely for the account of a great discovery, Dr. Watson’s book contains not a solemn or pompous word. It breezes along, full of gossipy vignettes, many of them at the expense of Francis Crick, his partner in pursuit of DNA. (“For 35 years he had not stopped talking and almost nothing of fundamental value had emerged.”) Reviewers noted, not with the intent to praise, that the book read more like a novel than history.
“The book is not a history of the discovery of DNA, as you claim in the preface. Instead it is a fragment of your autobiography,” Crick wrote to him in a furious attempt to suppress its publication. “Anything which concerns you and your reactions, apparently, is historically relevant, and anything else is thought not to matter. ... If you publish your book now, in the teeth of my opposition, history will condemn you.”
Whether history or autobiography, the annotated version of “The Double Helix” embeds the book firmly in a historical context and lets the reader appreciate how much substance lies deftly hidden beneath the filigree surface. As Crick later admitted, after he had gotten over his fury, his colleague had unobtrusively packed a lot of science into the book, which faithfully recounts the logic of each step forward and backward.
A feature that makes “The Double Helix” so unusual, as well as readable, is that Dr. Watson does not describe the discovery from the usual retrospective view taken by historians. Rather, his aim was to record his state of mind at the time the discovery was made. Since he was then just 24, the narrative presents a young man’s view of the world, hence the preoccupation with girls and parties, the dismissive attitude toward Rosalind Franklin, his critic and rival in the race, and youthfully astringent observations like this one: “One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.”
Dr. Watson was no doubt well aware of the risks in describing what he really felt at the time. In an era of relentless self-promotion, few could understand that an author might choose to set down the exact truth even if it was unflattering. One set of critics felt the public image of science had been grievously damaged by this unvarnished portrayal of competitive instincts. Another group used his narrative to charge that Franklin had been unfairly robbed of the Nobel Prize.
The annotated edition of “The Double Helix,” prepared by two of Dr. Watson’s colleagues at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski, provides several documents that bear on Franklin’s role in the discovery. One is the devious and destructive letter sent to her by John Randall, chairman of the physics department at King’s College, London.
Randall’s colleague Maurice H. F. Wilkins, the only English researcher officially working on the structure of DNA, had asked him for an assistant. Franklin was duly hired, but Randall, for reasons best known to him, implied in his letter that DNA would be her project alone. This naturally set up a poisonous state of affairs between Franklin and Wilkins. They barely communicated, and Franklin by herself made slow progress, opening up the strong possibility that the American chemist Linus Pauling would solve the problem first.
Because of his own work and an early X-ray photo of DNA taken by W. T. Astbury, Wilkins strongly believed that the molecule had a helical structure. For a long while Franklin doubted this. The annotated edition reproduces the black-bordered postcard in which she mockingly announced the death of the DNA helix. “It is hoped that Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins will speak in memory of the late helix,” she wrote.
The young Dr. Watson had no monopoly on contempt for his fellow scientists. Franklin, for example, wrote of her colleagues in a letter excerpted here, “The other middle and senior people are positively repulsive and it’s they who set the general tone.”
The first Watson-Crick attempt to build a model of the DNA structure was a disaster. Dr. Watson had misremembered the figure for the water content of DNA that Franklin announced in a lecture. He and Crick proudly invited her and Wilkins to Cambridge to view the model and were humiliated when she instantly pointed out the error. Lawrence Bragg, head of Crick’s department at Cambridge, was mortified by the failure and ordered him to get back to his studies on protein structure.
Despite his youth, Dr. Watson had developed a keen insight into the motivations of his older colleagues. He adroitly used Pauling’s first — mistaken — publication on DNA to persuade Bragg that the American chemist would triumph again unless Crick was allowed to resume his model building.
An appendix makes it clear how close “The Double Helix” came to being suppressed. Dr. Watson sent the manuscript to many of the central players, inviting their comments on its accuracy. Harvard University Press had accepted it for publication, but the Harvard authorities came to feel it was too hot a potato and dropped it.
Atheneum Publishers, which picked it up, requested a blander title — previous versions had included “Honest Jim” and “Base Pairs.” The latter — referring to the paired sets of chemical bases that form the steps in the double helix, and by extension to the two discoverers — gave particular offense to Crick, who failed to see why he should be considered base. Atheneum’s lawyers then tried to make the text inoffensive to the many possible litigants.
But Dr. Watson was able to resist many changes. He had cannily persuaded Bragg to write a foreword, and this endorsement from an establishment figure provided sufficient protection for the book to be published. It proceeded to sell more than a million copies.
Classic works of literature from Herodotus’s “Histories” to “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Waste Land” have received the honor of annotated editions. “The Double Helix” richly deserves admittance to this hall of fame. I have one cavil: The publisher, seemingly to economize on black ink, has printed the documents and photographs in such low-definition, smudgy gray that many are unreadable. That aside, the edition produces much of the raw material out of which a masterpiece was created.

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