The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

By Mor Alkaslasi, Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior, ’16

Author’s Note:

“I chose to write a review about this book because I kept finding myself telling my professors and peers about it. As a student in a scientific discipline to which genetics and DNA are crucial, I feel that this book is a notable chronicle of the scientific process and of one of the most groundbreaking discoveries of the past century. I hope that this review serves to encourage anyone with an interest in science to read this book, or at least to realize the book’s importance in the scientific community.”

“The discovery of the structure by Crick and Watson, with all its biological implications, has been one of the major scientific events of this century.” When Sir Lawrence Bragg wrote this for the foreword, he had no idea how influential this event would actually be for scientific progress even decades later. Following this major scientific event, deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, has begun to be commonly revered as “the blueprint of life,” further highlighting its significance. With newfound knowledge of the structure of DNA, our understanding of this macromolecule has been essential for progress in many scientific and medical fields. With the great advancements facilitated by this finding, many people have begun to overlook the elaborate scientific process that was necessary to bring the fields of genetics and molecular biology to where they are today.

The Double Helix tells the story of the famed discovery of the structure of DNA. This book is particularly enticing because it describes the whole process from the perspective of James D. Watson, of the ‘Watson and Crick’ most of us learned about in high school biology. It is not just a chronological history of their contribution to science, but a personal interpretation of everything that happened from Watson’s 1950 arrival in Europe to the 1953 publication of “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids” in Nature. As well as elaborating the historic discovery of DNA’s molecular structure, this book exemplifies the views and opinions of an American scientist living in England in the mid-twentieth century, exposing much of the laboratory politics that still exist today.

A Personal Account

In 1951, James Dewey Watson, an American who had recently earned a Ph.D. in Zoology, joined the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University with the hopes of discovering the structure of DNA. There, he met Francis Crick, a British scientist “who occasionally did experiments but more often was immersed in the theories.”

A testament to the fact that this is a personal account, Watson describes Crick as loud, boisterous, and “enormously excited.” Just like in anyone’s own account, Watson’s opinions and biases shine through in The Double Helix.

These biases come to light again in his utterly frank descriptions of Rosalind Franklin. We know now that Franklin’s X-ray diffraction photos were crucial for Watson and Crick to verify the double helical structure of DNA, but what was Watson’s opinion of her?

The first indication of what Watson and Crick thought of Franklin was that they called her “Rosy”, a name meant to establish their superiority, when she wasn’t around. Even Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s supervisor, joined Watson and Crick in depreciating her abilities.

I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes… There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English bluestocking adolescents… Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place… given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA.

Despite this clearly sexist view of her, it becomes apparent that Watson, Crick, and Wilkins are simply intimidated by this strong and determined personality in a woman.

These opinions of Franklin were likely, in part, due to social norms. Throughout the book, Watson frequently alludes to the expectations in British society. In England, he frequently attended social gatherings that allowed him to interact with experts in his field, something he evidently did not participate in in the U.S.

“It was my first experience with the high life, associated in my mind with decaying European aristocracy. An important truth was slowly entering my head: a scientist’s life might be interesting socially as well as intellectually.”

In addition, he illustrates how important it was to look cleaned up in British society. When Odile, Crick’s wife, first met him, she “had told Francis that a bald American was coming to work in the lab.”

With these insights into the daily interactions and societal expectations, this novel provides an interesting look into 1950s England through the eyes of a young American scientist.

As a Scientist

In addition to providing an inside view of British society, another fascinating aspect of this book is that it provides present-day scientists, like myself, with insight into one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last century. As a student in a scientific discipline, I am very aware of the structure of DNA and its function in genetics. It is incredibly exciting to read the story of their scientific journey and put the pieces together along with them.

While reading this book, I found myself reasoning through their logic with them. At some point during their time in the lab, Dr. Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winning chemist who was also working on the structure of DNA, proposed a triple helical structure. The suggested model had the phosphate backbone in the center of the axis, with the nucleotide bases sticking out. I remember reading this and thinking, “The phosphate backbone can’t be in the middle! The phosphates are negative; they’d repel each other!” Today, this is an obvious flaw with the triple helix model. At the time, though, this was something scientists had to figure out for themselves.

Today, many of the questions they had regarding DNA’s structure have answers that would be obvious to present-day scientists, but at the time, this was a puzzle they had to solve. It is, in every sense of the word, fun to read along and put the pieces of the puzzle together along with them, already knowing the final answer.

Looking back on Watson and Crick’s deduction of this critical feature of DNA will resonate with modern-day scientists. We still feel the pressure they felt to publish before someone beats us to it; we still assess the validity of other publications in our field and use them to build on our own hypotheses; we still work for months or years to answer a question that we’re not sure we can answer; and we still come up with the wrong answer from time to time, but keep trying regardless.

In short, The Double Helix, by James D. Watson, is a stimulating account of the discovery of DNA that sheds light on both the social climate of mid-twentieth century England and the scientific process that led to one of the greatest discoveries of the past century.