English: DNA model built by Crick and Watson i...

DNA model built by Crick and Watson in 1953, on display in the National Science Museum of London.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are several ways to read The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, by Nobel Prize Winner James D. Watson.

There is the scientific breakthrough of the structure of DNA that its discoverers thought so significant, that:

“Francis wanted no time lost in seeing whether satisfactory three-dimensional models could be built, since the geneticists and nucleic-acid biochemists should not misuse their time and facilities any longer than necessary.”

“They must be told the answer quickly, so that they could re-orient their research on our work.”

They announced their discovery at a scientific conference on April 8, 1953. Their paper describing the discovery was printed in Nature magazine on April 25, 1953.

There was the race for the greatest scientific prize – the Nobel, which three contributors to solving the problem, Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, shared, in 1962.

When Watson told his sister, a friend, and the son of a colleague, Linus Pauling, also competing for the Nobel by being the first to nail down the structure of DNA:

“Both were genuinely pleased, Elizabeth with sisterly pride, Bertrand with the idea that he could report back to International Society that he had a friend who would win a Nobel Prize.”

“Peter’s [Pauling] reaction was equally enthusiastic and gave no indication that he minded the possibility of his father’s first real scientific defeat.”

There was a feminist angle. A scientist in Wilkins’ lab, Rosalind Franklin, struggled to be accepted as an equal among her peers.

Yet, it was she who provided the physical evidence of the helical structure with precise x-rays of DNA refraction images.

She died of ovarian cancer at 37, in 1958. Watson always gave her credit for her contribution and claimed she would have shared the Nobel prize had she still been alive when it was awarded.

There was the nationalistic angle, overlaid by the personalities of the scientists involved.

When the American Watson came to work in the Cavendish laboratory in London with Francis Crick, he describes why Crick wasn’t working on trying to solve the DNA structure problem, though Watson thought it the most interesting problem to tackle:

“…such a decision would create an awkward personal situation. At this time molecular work on DNA in England was, for all practical purposes, the personal property of Maurice Wilkins…Like Francis, Maurice had been a physicist and also used x-ray diffraction as his principal tool of research.”

“It would have looked very bad if Francis had jumped in on a problem that Maurice had worked over for several years…”

“It would have been easier if they had been living in different countries. The combination of England’s coziness – all the important people, if not related by marriage, seemed to know each other – plus the English sense of fair play would not allow Francis to move in on Maurice’s problem.”

“In France, where fair play obviously did not exist, these problems would not have arisen.”

“The States also would not have permitted such a situation to develop. One would not expect someone at Berkeley to ignore a first rate problem merely because someone at Cal Tech had started first.”

“In England, however, it simply would not look right.”

There were the incorrect textbooks on inorganic chemistry. When Watson was trying to construct a physical model and make the various pieces of the structure join neatly, he used illustrations from several textbooks for his model.

When he discussed this with an American crystallographer who happened to be visiting for six months and had worked at Cal Tech, the scientist assured him that the textbook illustrations were wrong and the inorganic chemists simply too lazy to submit the right ones. Then he told them what they should have been.

The redirection was significant.

“The unforeseen dividend of having Jerry share an office with Francis, Peter and me, though obvious to all, was not spoken about. If he had not been with us in Cambridge, I might still have been pumping for a like-with-like structure.”

“Maurice, in a lab devoid of structural chemists, did not have anyone about to tell him that all the textbook pictures were wrong.”

And, there was playing with physical models to see what shapes fit together. I assume this kind of modeling is now done on a computer, but then, Watson asked the lab’s metal shop to make him models of the atoms he was trying to fit together in a cohesive structure.

As the final structure started to slip into place in his mind, he couldn’t wait any longer for the metal model and cut out pieces of cardboard to look for ways for the atoms to fit together and discovered the shapes that matched.

Then, he was more anxious than ever to get his metal model put together.

“Only a little encouragement was needed to get the final soldering accomplished in the next couple of hours.”

“The brightly shining metal plates were then immediately used to make a model in which for the first time all the DNA components were present…The resulting helix was right-handed with the two chains running in opposite directions.”

It was the shape of a spiral staircase, with pairs of atoms joined like stairsteps.

It is now the most famous shape in biology, the double helix, and its pairs, or double strand, explain why, if your parents have blue eyes, you will have blue eyes.

You and your grandchildren can share this exciting look at one of the fundamental discoveries of our lifetime, the structure of DNA, by ordering Watson’s book from amazon. Just click on the title, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers



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