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 structure.
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 experiments.
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...