Three-D Anniversary

October 13, 2003

Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson, 2001, Touchstone Books, 256 pp.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of what has been called the most important scientific achievement of the 20th century -- the discovery of the three-dimensional (three-D) structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. The significance of this discovery lies in the importance of DNA as the source of genetic information and how this finding ushered in the era of molecular biology, the influence of which continues to expand today. 
The story of the discovery of DNA's structure has been told by many authors and examined from a number of perspectives; none, however, compares with the candid and vivid telling by Watson in Double Helix, first published in 1968. Touchstone Books republished this classic in 2001 with a new foreword by Sylvia Nasar, and 35 years after its initial publication, it's still a fascinating account. 
The story begins with Watson in Copenhagen, the print barely dry on his doctoral diploma. He is there on a postdoctoral fellowship to learn biochemistry, but Watson's real interest was in DNA, which he recognized as the secret to genetics. When it became obvious that he wasn't learning anything about DNA in Copenhagen, he moved to the Cavendish Laboratory in England, where a world-class group of scientists was using X-ray crystallography to study the structure of large molecules. 
At the Cavendish, Watson met Francis Crick, still a graduate student working on his PhD. The two immediately hit it off and dreamed of together solving the structure of DNA. The trouble was, they didn't have any data. That didn't deter them, however; they decided to use data collected by others who had done the hard work but, in Watson's view, lacked the intelligence to know what it meant. 
Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins at King's College in London had been working on DNA's structure and had carried out experiments that yielded critical data; unfortunately, they had stopped speaking to each other because of a personal disagreement regarding who "owned" the DNA problem. Watson befriended Wilkins, gaining access to Franklin's unpublished data. They also gleaned information from published experiments and, significantly, used three-D models to test their ideas about how the components of DNA might fit together.
Watson's account of the race to solve DNA's structure is filled with high drama. There was a disastrous first attempt at building a structure, after which Watson and Crick were told to lay off DNA. Meanwhile, Linus Pauling, the most famous physical chemist of the time, became interested in DNA and, failing to remember that DNA is a weak acid (its name is deoxyribonucleic acid), proposed a chemically impossible structure. Pauling's remarkable blunder paved the way for Watson and Crick to get back into the race. A critical insight by Watson suggested that DNA consisted of two nucleotide chains with complementary bases that paired. Building a three-D model, they were able to show that their proposed structure was consistent with Franklin's X-ray data. 
Readers should be cautioned that Double Helix is a very personal account told from Watson's sometimes-arrogant perspective and, as such, does not represent a balanced view of the events. The book also has been criticized for Watson's ridicule of women, particularly Franklin, although he does attempt to make amends toward her in the epilogue. 
Watson's telling is not merely a good tale of a historically important event; it also provides important insight to the process of science. A common caricature of a scientist is someone who toils in the laboratory year after year, conducting experiments and collecting data, which eventually yield some important discovery. Watson's account quickly destroys this myth. Watson and Crick themselves never collected any data on DNA's structure, often came to the lab late and left early and spent considerable time playing tennis, attending parties and drinking at the local pub. What they did do -- and what enabled their success -- was to collaborate effectively, synthesize data from many sources and look at the big picture instead of the details. As this story reveals, great discoveries in science often are made not by collecting more data but by taking a fresh look at existing facts. Watson and Crick won the race by being bold, clever and lucky. Double Helix provides good entertainment and an illuminating view of science.

Dr. Pierce, BS '76 (Southern Methodist University), PhD '80 (University of Colorado), is a professor of biology.