James Watson’s The Double Helix: A ReviewA 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 thestructure of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) is a very witty narrative, andshines light on the nature of scientists.
Watson describes the many key eventsthat led to the eventual discovery of the structure of DNA in a scientificmanner, while including many experiences in his life that happened at the sametime which really have no great significant impact on the discovery of the DNAstructure.The Double Helix begins with a brief description of some of theindividuals that played a significant role in the discovery of DNA structure.Francis Crick is the one individual that may have influenced Watson the most inthe discovery. Crick seemed to be a loud and out spoken man.
He never wasafraid to express his opinion or suggestions to others. Watson appreciatedCrick for this outspoken nature, while others could not bear Crick because ofthis nature. Maurice Wilkins was a much calmer and quieter man that worked inLondon at King’s College. Wilkins was the initial person that excited Watson onDNA research. Wilkins had an assistant, Rosalind Franklin (also known as Rosy).Initially, Wilkins thought that Rosy was supposed to be his assistant inresearching 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 herfeelings be known to others. Throughout the book there is a drama betweenWilkins and Rosy, a drama for the struggle of power between the two.
Watson’s “adventure” begins when he receives a grant to leave the UnitedStates and go to Copenhagen to do his postdoctoral work with a biochemist namedHerman Kalckar. Watson found that studying biochemistry was not as exciting ashe hoped it would be; fortunately, he met up with Ole Maaloe, another scientistdoing research on phages (Watson studied phages intensively while in graduateschool). He found himself helping Ole with many of his experiments and soon hewas helping Ole with his experiments more than he was helping Herman with hisexperiments.
At first, Watson felt like he was deceiving the board of trusteesby not studying the material that the board sent him to study. However, Watsonfelt justified because Herman was becoming less and less interested in teachingWatson because of Herman’s current personal affairs (Herman and his wife decidedto 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 hisexperiments.
While in Copenhagen, Herman suggested that Watson go on a spring trip tothe Zoological station at Naples. It was in Naples that Watson first metWilkins. It was also in Naples that Watson first became excited about X-raywork on DNA. The spark that ignited Wilkins’ fire was a small scientificmeeting on the structures of the large molecules found in living cells. Watsonhad always been interested in DNA ever since he was a senior in college.
Nowthat he learned of some new research on how to study DNA, he had the craving todiscover 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 thatspring; however, that did not kill Watson’s desire to learn about its structure.Watson’s fire was further kindled by Linus Pauling, an incrediblyintelligent scientist out of Cal Tech. Pauling had partly solved the structureof proteins. He discovered that proteins have an alpha-helical shape.
Watsonthought this was an incredible discovery! He was excited to research and learnabout the DNA structure.Watson was worried about where he could learn more about DNA and how tosolve 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 toogreat 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 tosolve the DNA problem. It was about this time that Watson’s grant was about toexpire. He decided to write Washington and request that his grant be renewed,continuing his studies in Cambridge rather than Copenhagen. Thinking thatWashington would not deny his request, Watson packed up and went to Cambridge.
He worked several months in Cambridge when finally he received a return letterfrom Washington. The letter stated that his grant would not be continued.Nevertheless, Watson decided to remain in Cambridge and continue his stimulatingintellectual experience.It was in Cambridge that Watson first met Francis Crick.
Here, Watsondiscovered the fun of talking to Crick. In addition, Watson was elated that hefound someone in the lab that thought DNA was more important than proteins.Soon Watson and Crick found themselves having a daily lunch break togetherdiscussing many scientific topics, in particular, the unique aspects of DNA.As reports came to Watson and Crick about Paulings efforts to discoverthe structure of DNA, they began to feel pressure to discover the structurebefore Pauling did. However, Watson and Crick were at a disadvantage becausethey did not have access to some valuable research done by Wilkins and Rosy.This did not discourage Watson and Crick.
With the limited information they had,they began to riddle over the possible structures of DNA. So far all theevidence they had (and also their intuition) indicated that DNA was a helicalstructure like proteins with either one, two, or three strands. Pauling wasable to discover the alpha-helix by fiddling with models; by trial and error hecame up with the correct structure. Watson and Crick decided to try modelbuilding as a method of solving the structure of DNA.Over a period of weeks to months, Watson and Crick fumbled around withDNA models.
All did not go smoothly. One of the difficulties was that Watsonand Crick did not have all the materials available to construct a model with theinorganic ions like DNA. With some manipulation of on-hand material they wereable to create a model to their liking.Watson and Crick had constructed a beautiful three chain helixrepresenting DNA. The next obvious step would be to check the parameters withRosy’s quantitative measurements. To their knowledge the model would certainlyfit the general locations of the X-ray reflections.
Upon completion, Watson andCrick were ecstatic about their accomplishment. To be the first to discover thestructure of such an important molecule like DNA was going to make a majorimpact in the world.A phone call was made to Wilkins asking that he come to Cambridge toview the model and issue his opinion on its validity. The next day both Wilkinsand Rosy came to Cambridge to view the model. Watson and Crick had theirpresentations prepared. They planned to dazzle their audience as they explainedhow they solved the complexity of the DNA structure.
As their discussion wentforth, Wilkins was skeptical on many aspects of the model. Rosy was completelydissatisfied with the model, especially with the fact that the model had Mg++ions holding together the phosphate groups of the three-chain model. She notedthat the Mg++ ions would be surrounded by tight shells of water molecules whichcontradicted the results she had gained on the water content of DNA moleculesfrom her experiments.The rest of the day was spent trying to salvage what little argumentWatson and Crick had. Over lunch was no success, neither did they prevail whenthey returned to the lab. Soon the day was over and Wilkins and Rosy returnedto London.
When Watson and Crick’s supervisors heard of the failure with themodel, they ruled that no further research would be done at Cambridge on DNA.For over a year Watson and Crick let DNA alone, only to be pondered upon whilenot working on other projects.That year Watson worked on researching the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV).A vital component to TMV was the nucleic acid, so it was the perfect front tomask his continued interest in DNA. Over time and hard work, Watson was able toshow that some parts of TMV were helical in shape and thus decided to return towork on the structure of DNA.
With more knowledge and expertise the research went forward with passion.Watson had seen an X-ray picture taken by Rosy that to him gave sure evidencethat DNA was helical. Wilkins data only furthered his conviction.
Watson andCrick were back at it again with a new fervor. They knew that there was a sugarphosphate backbone to the structure and it was held together somehow by thenucleic acids (adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine). Watson had a hunchthat the shape was going to be a double helix. At first Watson thought the twobackbones were held together by a like-with-like structure (adenine-adenine,thymine-thymine, etc.) holding the nucleic acids together with a hydrogen bonds.After about a day Watson realized that a like- with-like structure just was notpossible.Watson knew that the amounts of adenine always equaled thymine andamounts of cytosine equaled guanine.
With the help of Crick, they tried toconstruct a model by pairing adenine with thymine and guanine with cytosine.This fell together very nicely. After obtaining several opinions on thevalidity of their work they placed a call to Wilkins.
Wilkins and Rosy camedown and to the surprise of Watson and Crick, Wilkins and Rosy were immediatelypleased with the model. After comparing results and measuring the model theydecided that Wilkins and Rosy would publish a paper at the same time Watson andCrick published their paper, announcing their discovery.This was indeed an incredible discovery for the world, especially forthe world of biology. The structure for the “stuff of life” was finallydiscovered. Watson and Crick went on to win the Nobel Prize for their work.Pauling who had worked so hard to discover the structure was not disgruntled bythe fact that someone had beaten him to the discovery, but rather pleased thatthe problem was finally solved.
Everyone was enthusiastic about the newdiscovery.This was excellent reading. Watson not only told the story of how thestructure of DNA was discovered but he also let us in on the developments ofparts of his personal life. He would speak of how he tried to have dinners at aschool that was teaching young, pretty French girls English. He also spoke muchof his relationship with Crick and Crick’s wife, Odile.
He made the book comealive and science seem more fun, breaking the stereotype of the scientist. Iespecially enjoyed how he described Rosy and her firm dedicated feministicattitude. The reader could feel sympathy for the tribulations Wilkins had to gothrough working with her.
The book was an excellent account of the discovery of the structure ofDNA. Throughout the text, Watson mostly eluded to the greatness of othersrather than to his own greatness. Even though he played probably the mostsignificant part in the discovery of DNA’s structure he gave credit to thosethat have inspired him.