Book Review:
Inside the critical DNA discovery

The Secret Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA's Double Helix

Howard Markel, 2021

The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA's Double Helix (2021) by Howard Markel,  is an in-depth account of the personal relationships between and among the several scientists who contributed to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA; the discovery that revealed how genes are copied in cell division. It is an understatement to say that Markel's book presents most of these scientists (several of whom received the Nobel Prize in 1962)  in an unflattering light given the rivalries, resentments, enmity bordering on loathing, misogyny, egotism, ruthless ambition and ethical bad behavior of most of these (now) famous persons. It is also a story of how great scientific discoveries occur when a number of scientists are on the same scent, seeking fame and the recognition of peers for making an important discovery while appearing to abide by, or bending, professional and ethical boundaries.


The main winners of the race to discover the structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson, were unlikely contenders for the gold ring of discovery. Both were graduate students at Cambridge's Cavendish Lab which, by a gentleman's agreement with laboratories at Kings College, London, were not supposed to be researching the structure of DNA which, by 1950, several scientists understood likely contained the key to genetics.  Crick and Watson were considered irritating pains in the rear by most of their colleagues, including their superiors who quickly understood that they were obnoxious (loud and not respectful of pecking orders),  and unwilling to follow orders to reign in their interest in DNA. Crick was effusive, irrepressible, an arrogant intellectual gadfly whose conversation utilized Joycean rules of free association. Crick assumed (often rightly) that he was the smartest person in the room, a self assessment resented by others.  His laugh was experienced as "armor piercing" and abrasive by his superiors who resented his implicit assumption that he knew and understood more about biology and physics than they did. Watson recognized Crick's brilliance at first meeting and delighted in his intellectual fireworks.  Watson was young ( 25 in 1953) and odd, with bulging eyes, seemingly involuntary grunts and a young man's interest in the "popsies," i.e., sexy young women he met at Cambridge. He was an awkward and untalented experimental scientist who had manipulated his acceptance at the Cavendish through interpersonal chutzpah. Crick and Watson were widely viewed as clownish, especially after the dynamic duo jumped the gun in November 1951 with a flawed triple helix model of DNA that Rosalind Franklin, an expert in x-ray calligraphy at Kings, saw was wrong with a single glance. Franklin did not hide her contempt for Crick's and Watson's amateurish model building, a humiliation Watson (and probably Crick) never forgot or forgave.  


Franklin was not alone in her lack of regard for the duo's scientific expertise. A famous chemist at the time, Edwin Chargaff, described Crick and Watson as "pygmies" after meeting them once. He found their aggressive ambition to unlock the secrets of DNA as off putting and ridiculous given their weak understanding of the chemistry of nucleotides.  No one took them seriously until the last few months before their "discovery" of the structure of DNA. Crick was a theorist (a brilliant one) with no experimental data of his own. Watson was a lazy experimentalist who took short cuts, and found it easier to tap the discoveries of others, especially the x-ray studies of Rosalind Franklin, a patient, hard working experimental scientist who would not give Watson the time of day, and who had zero respect for his approach to scientific discovery. What to do? Crick and Watson lacked the experimental evidence from published studies, or from Franklin's initial x-ray analysis of DNA which she had presented publicly, to determine whether DNA was a double or triple helix.  In late January 1953 Watson went to Franklin's boss, Maurice Wilkins, the head of the Cavendish laboratory, to complain about Franklin's aggressive behavior during an angry argument over helical models. Markel writes that Watson practically "pleaded' with Wilkins to reveal the nature of Franklin's recent x- ray calligraphy study of DNA. Watson's complaint re Franklin's angry behavior "unlocked" Wilkin's resentment of Franklin. Wilkins informed Watson of a similarly ugly run-in he had had with Franklin. Wilkins then turned over to Watson Franklin's most recent x-ray of DNA, by far the clearest, most revealing picture of DNA at that time, without Franklin's knowledge or agreement.  The x-ray showed an X tilted off center.  Based on theoretical considerations, Watson understood immediately that this x-ray of DNA-b indicated a double helix, an implication Franklin did not immediately understand.  Franklin was not a theorist, and by 1953 was working in "existential quarantine," according to Markel. Neither Watson, Wilkins nor other top scientists bothered to inform Franklin of the importance of her discovery until they were ready to publish a few months later, which they did by mentioning Franklin's work but not explaining its importance in the discovery of the double helix structure. Wilkins, Watson and, to a lesser extent Crick, defended their behavior over many decades, while minimizing the ethical violations of their deplorable behavior. 


Watson went still further. In 1962, he published The Double Helix, a book that added to his fame and fortune. In his self aggrandizing account of the discovery of DNA's structure, he painted an unflattering, unkind and inaccurate picture of Franklin as a difficult, socially isolated person unable to collaborate with others due to her character flaws. Watson referred to Franklin as "Rosy," a name she hated and was tagged with by a sarcastic male colleague. He says nothing about the name calling, practical joking, social exclusion, condescension and interference she endured at Cavendish. Markel asserts that Watson's comments regarding the woman who despised and humiliated him as "the cruelest published description written by one scientist of another that this historian has read in nearly forty years of practice." Watson's description of Franklin in The Double Helix added insult to injury given that, without Franklin's X-ray evidence, Watson and Crick were dead in the water, unsure of how to proceed. Once Watson was shown Franklin's x-ray evidence, he and Crick developed their double helix model in about 5 weeks.  Absent Rosalind Franklin, it is highly unlikely the dynamic duo would have beaten Linus Pauling, a world renowned chemist with a research factory at Cal Tech at his disposal, to the detailed double helix model they proposed in the spring of 1953. Markel opines: " despite all the success and enjoyment derived from the superbly crafted The Double Helix, "why would a decent man write it at all?" Markel answers his own question with a comment from C.P. Snow: "The interest of Jim Watson's book lies very largely in the fact that he is not a nice man," a mild way of calling Watson a scumbag.  The actual reason Watson published his book was to shape and control the historical memory of his and Crick's discovery, and to head off what Markel has done, i.e., set the record straight, call bad behavior by its right name and give Rosalind Franklin (who died of cancer in 1958) her due. To her credit, Franklin never publicly attacked Watson and Crick for their actions, and developed a positive relationship with Crick before her death.      


The most interesting character in this amazing story is James Watson, "honest Jim" as a sarcastic colleague once referred to him according to a memorable story in The Double Helix.  Watson was odd, eccentric and even clownish at times, a social mask that concealed his shrewd eye for the main chance, both in his assessment of others and his intuition regarding the direction of science. He recognized Crick's brilliance before others did, and was an enthusiastic sounding board for Crick's ideas. It was Watson, not Crick, who made the final two crucial theoretical discoveries in the discovery of DNA: that the nucleotide bases (A,T,G,C) were in the center and the sugar-phosphate backbones on the outside. How Watson came to this conclusion was characteristic of how his mind worked: despite his apparent laziness, he taught himself organic chemistry in 1952. He also had the good fortune to be housed in the same office as Jerry Donahue, a chemist who had trained with Pauling at Cal Tech. Donohue was one of the world's few experts on the hydrogen bonds between A,T,G and C, the nucleotide bases. Watson listened to Donohue's insistence that the model of "like pairs with like" in a shifting molecular configuration could not be right because the hydrogen bonds between these molecules tend to be stable.  After a brief argument, Watson concluded that Donahue was probably right because "Jerry knew more about hydrogen bonds than anyone in the world." Watson dumped the model he had fallen in love with and, with Crick's and Donahue's help, came to a "eureka" moment: guanine and cytosine were paired with two hydrogen bonds, ditto for adenine and thymine. Watson - described by Chargaff as a "pygmy," a scientific non-entity --  had "solved the riddle of the Chargraff rules, an enigma so difficult that not even its crusty namesake could unravel it." (p. 350)   


There is one other major lesson regarding scientific discovery in the story Markel tells so well. Crick and Watson were highly motivated, bold, willing to be embarrassed and even humiliated in the race to understand the structure of DNA. They also had one another to bounce their ideas off of on a daily basis.  Their rules of interaction allowed fierce disagreements and loud arguments. Franklin was cautious by temperament and training, unwilling to get out in front of the evidence, and she was isolated and mistreated by her male colleagues. She did not have an intellectual partner. Wilkins was timid and more concerned with his status and position than with discovery.  Pauling was so famous, renowned and vain that lesser mortals could not point out a hard to believe sophomoric error in his article that proposed a triple helix structure for DNA, the same structure Crick and Watson had proposed in November 1951. Watson and Crick were unscrupulous, but they were also bold and far brainier than their colleagues at Cambridge and at Kings believed. In science as in war, "fortune favors the brave."


  Wilkins was awarded the Nobel Prize (along with Crick and Watson) in 1962, seemingly for political reasons, though it's possible he pretended to be instrumental in Franklin's work, when in fact he persecuted her and sent her into scientific exile before publication regarding the discovery of the double helix structure in 1953. 

-- Dee Wilson