April 25, 1953—Unlocking what they believed might be “the secret of life”—and beating several rivals to the punch with their discovery—James D. Watson and Francis Crick described the molecular structure of DNA, the hereditary material that forms individual human beings, in a landmark paper that appeared in the influential scientific journal Nature.
In the same issue of the journal were two other articles dealing with DNA –the acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid – whose co-authors included Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. Wilkins and Franklin had been working at a lab in Cambridge, while Watson and Frick were at King’s College in London. These four, together with Linus Pauling, were locked in a struggle to figure out the nature of DNA.
In Larry Chinnock’s high school biology class at St. Cecilia’s High School in Englewood, N.J., I first learned about this particular phenomenon. After I figured out how to spell the damn thing (for one year only, figuring –until I had to write this blog post!—that the acronym DNA would do just fine on all occasions for the rest of my life), I squinted at the strange full-color diagram in our text showing this “double-helix.”
The text did a good enough job, I suppose, of explaining how DNA exerted itself on chromosomes. But I don’t think it gave us a really good idea of the brave new world opened up by this momentous discovery.
Nor—and this is something that might have appealed to a history aficionado like myself—did the book help us grasp how the struggle to understand DNA was another in a long line of scientific donnybrooks.
From Orville Wright quarreling with the Smithsonian Institution over the proper credit that should be given to him and brother Wilbur over the airplane, to Alexander Graham Bell’s fevered (and, some people think now, highly suspect) last-minute rush to gain a patent for the telephone, to Isaac Newton’s quarrels with…well, everybody, science is not really the disinterested, objective search for truth that the high priests of science would like us to believe.
Fifteen years after he and Frick published the fruits of their research, Watson wrote The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Just as the year before, Norman Podhoretz’s Making It exposed the “dirty little secret” of New York intellectual life (ambition), Watson’s memoir spelled out a world that you and I never encountered in high school science classes: cutthroat competition among men (and, in this case, women) in white suits.
It was understood while these scientific investigations were occurring that Cambridge was ceding leadership in the race to identify DNA to King’s College—except that Watson and Crick weren’t engaged in these ethical niceties. Franklin, working under the direction of Wilkins, had produced a photograph of a DNA molecule that was given without her permission by Crick to Watson, who admitted later, "My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race." At a glance, it opened up to them the helixical nature of DNA, as well as its method of replication. They rushed their realization into print, beating not only Pauling (who didn’t have access to Franklin’s revelatory image) but Franklin herself.
Nine years after the epic discovery, Watson, Crick and Wilkins received Nobel Prizes for their work. Franklin received none, because six years earlier she had died of ovarian cancer at age 37.
Upon publication, The Double Helix was hailed for making scientific discovery thrilling and relatively jargon-free for the layman. But, in those days before consciousness-raising, Watson did something that would now be called politically incorrect and back then, by men of a certain stripe, would be considered ungallant: he dissed the deceased Franklin as bossy and frumpy.
In recent years, a couple of major biographies have reversed this cruel stereotype, revealing what a talented crystallographer Franklin was. Conversely, Watson’s reputation took a major hit when he was forced to resign from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, after stating that he was not optimistic about the future of Africa because the intelligence of Africans was lower than that of whites. The remark was a double nightmare for his institution not just because it exposed Watson’s individual racism but because it revived memories of the lab’s shameful past as the epicenter of the eugenics movement, America’s misbegotten embrace of scientific racism.
In a way, Watson’s fall from grace was poetic justice—not just because of isolated incautious remarks (which more than one politician has made in this electoral cycle, lest we forget), but because they were the latest example of a pattern of criticizing minorities and women, according to “Talking Points Memo” blogger Joshua Micah Marshall. Not only had Watson dumped all over Rosalind Franklin (and at a time when she wasn’t around to defend herself), but later sexist remarks led to a mass walkout by female members of a West Coast audience.
Evidently, the brashness of Watson’s youth has hardened into cantankerousness. He has had to learn the hard way what the rest of us could have told him much more easily: a Nobel Prize doesn’t immunize you from making stupid remarks.
Years earlier, upon realizing the momentous adventure upon which they were embarking, Crick remarked to Watson that they had discovered “the secret of life.” But as far as I’m concerned, baby-boomer bard James Taylor knew the real secret. Sadly, the now-octogenarian Watson does not appear to have learned it.
Student’s Doodle Wins Google’s Heart.
11 minutes ago