Moselio Schaechter

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December 06, 2012

Book Review: Son of Double Helix

The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix. By James Watson. Edited by A. Gann and J. Witkowski. Simon and Schuster, 2012.

by Elio


This reissuing of The Double Helix, now adorned with umpteen photographs, reprints of first pages of articles, personal letters (some in scrawled—illegible—handwriting), sketches, etc., is not your usual reprint, but I hasten to say that it does make sense. The added material fleshes out the events of that time, with collected accouterments that appeal to both the eye and the mind. Some are purely illustrative (e. g., a photo of the Idlewild Airport observation deck in the late 1940s or a heavy foggy November night in London in the 1950s) and could be considered superfluous, but most are OK, or even better than that.


Despite later claiming that they had thrown out many early documents, the key participants in the early days of research on the structure of DNA had obvious pack rat tendencies as they saved a lot of now precious stuff ranging from letters to doodles on napkins. And a good thing that is. These informal documents often provide us insights into the turbulent goings on of those days—events that appeared especially turbulent when reading Watson’s original 1968 edition. Do you wonder what really went on? Did W&C embezzle Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray image? Did they make sure that she did not get proper credit? Did their Nobel-prize fixation lead to inappropriate actions? The details assembled here provide clues for the merely curious and the absorbed scholar alike.


I would single out a few items for special mention: Not new, as it appeared in the first edition, is Bragg’s foreword. Read the third paragraph carefully as it clearly posit issues regarding scientific credit. More specifically, on p. 179 you find a synopsis of Franklin’s skepticism of the double helix, including her funereal card announcing the “death of the DNA helix.” And on p. 182 is  Ray Gosling’s account of how she gave her crucial photo to Wilkins. There are several appendices, also quite valuable, including several reviews of the original Double Helix, copies of the handwritten letters by Crick (to his son Michael) and Watson (to Max Delbruck) first describing their discovery, and a wonderfully literary but extraordinarily choleric review by Edwin Chargaff. But Chargaff wasn't the only one to use blunt speech. Salvador Luria, Watson’s Ph.D. mentor, wrote to him in connection with a fellowship that Watson wanted: “You goddam bastard, you wrote the silliest letter to the committee…”

So you see, this revision merits seeing the light of day. It brings to life the early stages in the development of modern Biology. If you liked Double Helix, you will love “Son of Double Helix.”


I can not understand the comments about how Watson did not give Franklin and others enough credit etc. If you read the book, Franklin is given due recognition for her photographs and her criticisms of their early efforts. Avery, Chargaff, Pauling, Jerry Donohue and dozens of others are all credited in the book for their contributions to Crick and Watson's brilliant discovery.

I have read The Dark Lady of DNA, a sympathetic comprehensive biography of Franklin by Brenda Maddox, and believe it added nothing essential to Watson's account of her contribution.

After reading The Double Helix my overwhelming impression was how lucky he was to be at the right place at the right time with the right people around. He had guessed the right approach - model building based on helices, and used their pieces of the puzzle to complete the picture.

What I think is missing is a better description of the brilliant insights before and after the elucidation of the structure, but Crick's book What Mad Pursuit fills the gap.

Rosalind Franklin was treated horribly by the Watson crowd. Regardless of how they got her photograph, they published their model without even acknowledging who did the experiment. The postcard proves nothing--was it ironic? Which "helix" did it refer to? Watson's first model, with A-A, T-T pairing etc., was totally wrong--Franklin no doubt was cool to that one.

Franklin later went on to work with John Bernal and Aaron Klug, with whom she did outstanding work on viral RNA. Bernal, an Irish communist, was the opposite of Watson, known for collaborating with brilliant women crystallographers (such as Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Nobel for Vitamin B12).

The Wikipedia article on "Rosalind Franklin" is very helpful. So is Dorothy Hodgkin. Honestly, I'd love to see a book (or movie!) about Bernal and Hodgkin someday, now that would be fun.

Watson has gotten quite radioactive these days, which is quite apart from the science described. It's interesting to watch the non-science academics weigh in on the "sociology of science." I would point out that cultures evolve, and not just in 2059 tubes: our views of science, gender, and access have changed markedly over the decades. So sometimes, I find that folks read historical science like this with "modern eyeglasses" instead of the viewpoints (and prejudices) of the time.

For me, having the records, the information, and the documents are valuable. I'll leave the sociological analysis to others. I'm more interested in the "RNA Tie Club"! I'll let Crick and Brenner speak about Gamov and the Club...

Gosh, I would buy one of those ties, and tie-pins.

I own this book. I agree that it is very valuable as a historical record, and an illustration of the interface between society and science.

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