The Double Helix – James D Watson

For this years August reading marathon I have decided to tackle four of the most significant science books that I have on my shelves. Unlike previous years where I have needed to read multiple books in a week this year I only have one at a time but because of their very nature these books are not something you can quickly get through and rush onto the next one, also two of them are over 500 pages in length. Three are published by the Folio Society and the other by Heritage Press in America who often produced books of a similar quality until they ceased publishing.

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I’m starting with what is arguably the most significant scientific discovery of the twentieth century, the structure of DNA and how it could pass on genetic material. It is written by one of the three Nobel Prize winners for the discovery and provides a fascinating account of the race to be the first to crack how this mechanism worked and indeed what it was that did it. Now I freely admit that biology is easily my weakest science having dropped the subject at sixteen so was a little wary of this book and whether it was just going to go over my head but I need not have worried as Watson’s style pulls the reader along so that even in the technical parts I could keep up.

I hadn’t realised how quickly the science behind genetics changed in the early 1950’s or how competitive the search for the solution as to how genetic material was passed on became. Watson provides a good overview of the state of the science after the war where the general consensus was that the information had to be in proteins because they were more complex than DNA appeared to be so that had to be where something so important was encoded. Watson himself became interested in bacteriophages (phages for short) which are viruses which can have within them either DNA or the simpler RNA molecules surrounded by proteins and in 1951 started work at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge where he first met Francis Crick and the story begins. The original foreword which is included in this volume is by their departmental head Sir Lawrence Bragg who had himself won the Nobel Prize in 1915 for his work on X-Ray diffraction which was ultimately the way used to confirm the helical nature of DNA. Bragg says in his foreword regarding Watson’s style and tone in the book

He writes with Pepys like frankness. Those who figure in the book must read it in a very forgiving spirit. One must remember that his book is not a history, but an autobiographical contribution to the history which will someday be written. As the author himself says, the book is a record of impressions rather than historical facts.

Watson does indeed explain that he compiled the book from letters and diaries, which explains the large number of personal details such as dinners and his accommodation problems being included which all provide a more rounded narrative than the straight science. As for the Pepys like frankness, Bragg himself is subject to a few scathing comments especially when he specifically requires Crick and Watson to stop working on DNA and get on with what they were supposed to be doing. But his main target as a person obstructing their progress is Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant chemist and exponent of X-Ray crystalline photography and who took the images which ultimately confirmed Watson and Crick’s model. Franklin did not work with either Watson or Crick she was based in Kings College, London working with Maurice Wilkins or more accurately working against him according to this book as the two did not get on either personally or professionally so Watson’s impressions of her are strongly coloured by Wilkins’ opinions. Wilkins would ultimately share the Nobel prize with Crick and Watson in 1962, sadly Franklin had died of cancer in 1958 and posthumous prizes have only been awarded twice and have been specifically prohibited since 1974. Watson however has said that he thought she should have been included in 1962.

The tension mounts as Watson describes the various groups working on the genetic solution which ultimately comes down to three teams racing for the prize. Crick and Watson in Cambridge, Wilkins and Franklin in London and Linus Pauling in America. Ironically Pauling would also be a Nobel laureate in 1962 but he won the Peace prize for this campaign against nuclear testing. Wilkins and Franklin were the closest technically but due to their failure to work together were starting to trail but what really prompted Watson to get on with model building was Pauling who produced a paper which was close but which had a serious error in the chemistry and so produced the wrong result but Crick and Watson knew that once he realised his mistake it might be weeks rather than months before he fixed it and found the correct answer.

There have now been many more historical and less anecdotal accounts of the search for the structure of DNA, as predicted by Bragg in his introduction including another book by James Watson, which I also have, entitled DNA and written in 2003 to accompany a British TV series on DNA marking the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery. Watson was very young, only twenty four, when he and Crick made their breakthrough and that possibly also affected the style of this book. At the time of writing he is still alive, the only person involved who is, and at ninety two lives in his native America.

A better view of the cover design by Alice Stevenson based on a design by Gavin Morris.

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