The Double Helix Summary

James D. Watson

The Double Helix

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The Double Helix Summary

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Written by Dr. James D. Watson and first published in 1968, The Double Helix is an autobiographical account of the race between multiple groups of scientists to unlock the secrets of DNA. Watson, who earned his PhD in Zoology at Harvard, narrates the story in a linear fashion from his own vantage point. Reading more like a novella than a historic account of a major scientific breakthrough, the book covers the important events from 1950 to 1953.

There are several main players in those events, including Francis Crick, Watson’s partner and co-discoverer of the double helix; Maurice Wilkens of King’s College, London, who sparked Watson’s interest in DNA and shared the 1962 Nobel Prize with both Watson and Crick; Linus Pauling, the brilliant chemist working at Cal-Tech in Pasadena, California, who almost beat Watson and Crick to the answer; Rosalind Franklin of King’s College, London, who was victimized by Watson and Wilkins because of her gender; Sir Laurence Bragg, Director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge (and Watson and Crick’s superior;) Erwin Chargraff of Columbia University, who discovered the rules surrounding the bonding of base pairs of proteins within DNA; and Peter Pauling, Linus Pauling’s son, who unwittingly supplied Watson and Crick with the final piece of the puzzle.

The book includes a Foreword by Sir Laurence Bragg and a preface by the author, where he admits, unapologetically, that his intention was to write a completely subjective story based on his impressions of the events. From there, Watson moves forward, giving insights into the people he worked with. He relates how he began doing biological research in Copenhagen and ended up at the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge.  Watson describes himself as a scientist who only studies what interests him, with no training in mathematics or chemistry nor experience performing even basic laboratory experiments.

His recounting continues, telling of how he was exposed to the problem of determining the structure of DNA after attending a lecture by Maurice Wilkins it was a problem that interested him because it could be solved with little to no experimentation.

At Cambridge, Watson meets Francis Crick, who was also interested in DNA research. Crick had just co-written a paper on a mathematical property of DNA molecules. Using Watson’s grant, he and Crick began working together on the problem of DNA.

At this time, the most serious work being done on DNA in Britain was happening at Kings College, London by Maurice Wilkens. Watson and Crick decided to ask Wilkens to work with them. Wilkens agreed, but he had a problem; the chief researcher on his project was an x-ray crystallographer named Rosalind Franklin, and she refused to share any of her research until after she could present it.

While they waited, Watson and Crick studied the latest findings of Linus Pauling, who was almost certainly in the best position to solve the problem. Pauling had published a paper claiming that the DNA molecule was helical in nature. This worked well with Crick’s mathematical equations. Watson noticed that Pauling used models to prove his findings, and he and Crick decided they could beat him at his own game by constructing a model that fit the data, bypassing months of research.

Watson attended Franklin’s presentation and found that not only did she dismiss the possibility of a helical DNA, but she insisted that only x-ray crystallography could solve the problem of DNA.  Her images weren’t as clear as he’d hoped, and he considered the whole thing a waste of time. Unfortunately, Watson failed to take any notes.

After relating all he could remember about Franklin’s results to Crick, Watson and Crick began building a model that would fit all of the evidence. Once finished, they invited Wilkens to come and look at it. Both Wilkens and Rosalind Franklin showed up, and Rosalind immediately began showing how their model was flawed.  One flaw in particular was in the amount of water necessary to make the model work, a fact that Watson had misremembered from Franklin’s lecture.

Disgraced and humiliated, Watson and Crick gave up on solving the DNA problem. Then they got lucky. Erwin Chargraff published his findings on the relationships between base pairs, and Wilkens discovered an image that Franklin had not made public which showed a distinctively helical pattern. Watson then made two important guesses: first, that the helical structure was a double helix, and second, that the backbone was on the outside. He and Crick went back to model building just as word come from the States that Pauling had solved the problem and submitted his findings for publication. But Watson and Crick were not ready to give up. They sought out Peter Pauling who had been studying at Cambridge. Linus sent Peter a copy of his work, and Watson immediately snatched it out of Peter’s pocket and read it.

Watson saw problems with Linus’ work and realized that he had made the same mistake that he and Crick had made. Watson also realized the need for hydrogen bonding as opposed to sugar phosphate. He and Crick realized that as soon as Linus’ paper was published, his mistakes would become obvious and it would only be a matter of time before someone else found the answer. But with their head start, they were able to fit all the parts together correctly and solve the problem of how DNA is structured.

The major themes of this book revolve around the personal and professional relationships between scientists and how these can both help and hinder the scientific process. It also represents a unique approach to scientific history by relating the main character’s personal views instead of an objective reporting of the facts. It is considered an extremely controversial book, both for its subjective viewpoint and its prejudice, particularly in regards to Rosalind Franklin, who was maligned and disrespected because of her gender.