Sunday, June 1, 2014

Books for Young Health Scientists: The Double Helix

From the opening line:

"We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest."

to the closing remark:

"It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggest a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

Watson and Crick's 1953 Nature paper presenting the DNA double helix to the world, while only a single page in length, may have been "perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin's book." And those are Watson's words, not mine. But what lead up to this pivotal moment in science's recent history?

About a year and a half ago I read Francis H. C. Crick's What Mad Pursuit and wrote about his "Gossip Test." While Crick's book details the discovery of the double helix, it spans a much broader history of biochemistry and molecular biology. And to be honest, wasn't as exciting a read as Watson's Double Helix.

I picked up a copy at my neighbourhood used book store and read it this weekend. In print since 1968, the book details the story of Watson coming to the Cavendish Laboratory in 1951, up until the publication of their model of DNA. Oh and by the way, he was only 25 at the time of publication. While the book was strongly protested before publication, by the likes of Maurice Wilkins (who shared the 1962 Nobel Price with W&C) and Crick himself, and has received heavy criticism since; it remains an important perspective on such an important period in science and the scientific process itself. The book has been credited with bringing DNA to the public and was listed #7 on the 1998 Modern Library 100 Best Non Fiction Novels.

Note I said non fiction, the book has been heavily criticized for Watson's approach, however I would note the author takes care to note, in the preface, that:
"I have attempted to re-create my first impressions of the relevant events and personalities rather than present an assessment which takes into account the many facts I have learned since the structure was found."
 And goes on to point out that many of the ways he might recall these events may differ from the recollections of the other people involved "and so this book must be regarded as my view of the matter." The book, which has also come under fire for his treatment of Rosalind E. Franklin (who's X-ray crystallography data lead to W&Cs discoveries), also contains an epilogue in which Watson comments on how his relationship with Franklin improved overtime, he notes her successes as a scientist and acknowledges the obstacles she faced as a woman.

With all that said and done, take the book in hand with an awareness of its criticisms, and then dive in to read the story which plays out as fast paced and exciting as any Hollywood film, and get to know science, and some of the most renown scientists of all time from the perspective of Honest Jim (an early title dropped in favour of the Double Helix).

I personally enjoyed the book immensely and cannot wait to get my hands on Watson's follow-up autobiography Genes, Girls and Gamow. Thee book was made all the more enjoyable having just read: The Writing Life of James D. Watson, by Errol C. Friedberg, and so I was on the look out for all of the Watsonisms throughout. Apart from being a superb scientists, James Watson has a skill with the written word that is enviable.

What have you been reading lately? In between published research articles of course.


  1. It is a great book and story indeed. I suggest that you should also read The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix as well. I read and wrote two posts about them here:

  2. Many thanks for the amazing essay I really gained a lot of info. That I was searching for

  3. I read it in high school and could not get past his descriptions of how much prettier Dr. Franklin would have looked if she just did something with her hair. Oh, and how he gleefully STOLE her work because she wouldn't share it with him because even though it was her work and she'd get no credit, he was entitled to it because he's James D. Watson. The edition I read ended with how sad it was she'd died, but no apologies for his sexism or theft, to my recollection.

    Everyone I know who has met him in person says he's the biggest asshole they've ever met. To a person.


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