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James Watson's The Double Helix: A Review

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Science & Nature

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A review of Watson, James D. The Double Helix. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
James Watson's account of the events that led to the discovery of the
structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) is a very witty narrative, and
shines light on the nature of scientists. Watson describes the many key events
that led to the eventual discovery of the structure of DNA in a scientific
manner, while including many experiences in his life that happened at the same
time which really have no great significant impact on the discovery of the DNA
The Double Helix begins with a brief description of some of the
individuals that played a significant role in the discovery of DNA structure.
Francis Crick is the one individual that may have influenced Watson the most in
the discovery. Crick seemed to be a loud and out spoken man. He never was
afraid to express his opinion or suggestions to others. Watson appreciated
Crick for this outspoken nature, while others could not bear Crick because of
this nature. Maurice Wilkins was a much calmer and quieter man that worked in
London at King's College. Wilkins was the initial person that excited Watson on
DNA research. Wilkins had an assistant, Rosalind Franklin (also known as Rosy).
Initially, Wilkins thought that Rosy was supposed to be his assistant in
researching the structure of DNA because of her expertise in crystallography;
however, Rosy did not want to be thought of as anybody's assistant and let her
feelings be known to others. Throughout the book there is a drama between
Wilkins and Rosy, a drama for the struggle of power between the two.
Watson's "adventure" begins when he receives a grant to leave the United
States and go to Copenhagen to do his postdoctoral work with a biochemist named
Herman Kalckar. Watson found that studying biochemistry was not as exciting as
he hoped it would be; fortunately, he met up with Ole Maaloe, another scientist
doing research on phages (Watson studied phages intensively while in graduate
school). He found himself helping Ole with many of his experiments and soon he
was helping Ole with his experiments more than he was helping Herman with his
experiments. At first, Watson felt like he was deceiving the board of trustees
by not studying the material that the board sent him to study. However, Watson
felt justified because Herman was becoming less and less interested in teaching
Watson because of Herman's current personal affairs (Herman and his wife decided
to get a divorce). With Herman's lack of interest in teaching biochemistry,
Watson found himself spending the majority of the day working with Ole on his
While in Copenhagen, Herman suggested that Watson go on a spring trip to
the Zoological station at Naples. It was in Naples that Watson first met
Wilkins. It was also in Naples that Watson first became excited about X-ray
work on DNA. The spark that ignited Wilkins' fire was a small scientific
meeting on the structures of the large molecules found in living cells. Watson
had always been interested in DNA ever since he was a senior in college. Now
that he learned of some new research on how to study DNA, he had the craving to
discover the structure of the mysterious molecule that he believed to be the
"stuff of life". Watson never had the chance to discuss DNA with Wilkins that
spring; however, that did not kill Watson's desire to learn about its structure.
Watson's fire was further kindled by Linus Pauling, an incredibly
intelligent scientist out of Cal Tech. Pauling had partly solved the structure
of proteins. He discovered that proteins have an alpha-helical shape. Watson
thought this was an incredible discovery! He was excited to research and learn
about the DNA structure.
Watson was worried about where he could learn more about DNA and how to
solve X- ray diffraction pictures so the structure of DNA could be understood.
He knew he could not do this at Cal Tech with Pauling because Pauling was too
great a man to waste time with Watson and Wilkins continually put Watson off.
Soon Watson became aware that Cambridge was the place he could get experience to
solve the DNA problem. It was about this time that Watson's grant was about to
expire. He decided to write Washington and request that his grant be renewed,
continuing his studies in Cambridge rather than Copenhagen. Thinking that
Washington would not deny his request, Watson packed up and went to Cambridge.
He worked several months in Cambridge when finally he received a return letter
from Washington. The letter stated that his grant would not be continued.
Nevertheless, Watson decided to remain in Cambridge and continue his stimulating
intellectual experience.
It was in Cambridge that Watson first met Francis Crick. Here, Watson
discovered the fun of talking to Crick. In addition, Watson was elated that he
found someone in the lab that thought DNA was more important than proteins.
Soon Watson and Crick found themselves having a daily lunch break together
discussing many scientific topics, in ...

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