James Watson’s The Double Helix: Inaccurate and Insightful

In his highly popular autobiography The Double Helix, James Watson recounts his career and personal life, focusing on the events immediately surrounding how he, along with Francis Crick, elucidated the now-iconic structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Even beginning with its turbulent publication, the autobiography has enjoyed a preeminent presence among the many works which have been written about the history of molecular biology in the 1950s and 60s. Such has been the influence of Watson’s account that some scientists, such as Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar, have elevated the work to the status of a “classic, which will go on being read,” (Williams 366). But remarkably, the book turned out to be just as popular among those not directly involved in science, becoming a primary source of insight for the general public as to the process behind the making of biological discoveries. The Double Helix has become notable for its unique focus on the more tawdry, personal details of the lives of scientists as well as for its dramatic exaggeration of certain personalities and events. Watson likely included such embellishments in an effort to dispel the prevailing image of the scientist as a cold and impersonal figure. However, while the hyperbole of The Double Helix was important for developing the popular perception of science, emphasizing as it did the oft-overlooked involvement of flawed human beings in the discipline, it did also drain the work of some of its merit as an historically accurate reconstruction the discovery of the structure of DNA. Notable among Watson’s historical transgressions is his aberrant treatment of Rosalind Franklin, an x-ray crystallographer who was, like Watson and Crick, intimately involved in the discovery of the DNA double helix.

Watson’s unsavory characterization of Rosalind Franklin is one of the most striking features of The Double Helix, not only because it is strong but also because it contradicts other accounts of the x-ray crystallographer, calling into question the merit of his work as a history. Watson began his misleading description of Franklin, referred to as “Rosy” throughout his autobiography, by framing her as the belligerent laboratory assistant to Maurice Wilkins, another scientist studying DNA. According to Watson, Franklin “would not think of herself as Maurice’s assistant,” and instead “claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem,” (Watson 14). However, historian Horace Judson clarified that the head of the laboratory, John Randall, had in fact reassigned the project of working out the structure of DNA from belonging to Wilkins to being the project of Franklin, even formalizing the transition by bestowing upon Franklin the salient data that had already been produced by the laboratory as well as the assigned graduate student, Ryan Gosling (Judson 624). Therefore, Watson’s depiction of Franklin as an antagonistic colleague is not fully accurate. However, Watson was perhaps not actually striving to be informative about who Franklin really was. Rather, it is more likely that Watson intensified the personality of Franklin to contribute to a thesis which he states in the preface: “[science’s] steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles,” (Watson 3). It may be concluded that the characterization of Franklin in The Double Helix serves not to be an historically accurate account but rather to shed light on the importance of personality in even a discipline so seemingly austere as science.

Watson continued his unpleasant portraiture of Franklin throughout the autobiography, repetitively portraying her as gratuitously difficult to work with in a manner which has not been supported by accounts from Franklin’s other colleagues. Watson’s excessively surly characterization is particularly well represented in his description of how those in attendance at a research update given by Franklin had uncharacteristically few questions for the presenter. He postulated:

“Maybe their reluctance to utter anything romantically optimistic, or even to mention models, was due to fear of a sharp retort from Rosy. Certainly a bad way to go out into the foulness of a heavy, foggy November night was to be told by a woman to refrain from venturing an opinion about a subject for which you were not trained. It was a sure way of bringing back unpleasant memories of lower school .” (Watson 45)

While it is true that Franklin possessed a “prickly personality… which made her an obvious target” for Watson (Williams 370), the strength of Watson’s unflattering portrayal is likely unwarranted given the abundance of much milder descriptions of the x-ray crystallographer that have been provided by other colleagues. For example, Judson quoted another crystallographer, Vittorio Luzatti, as saying that while Franklin “was not very easy to get along with… to some extent,” she nonetheless “was a very warm personality; she had good friends, many people liked her very much,” (Judson 623). Another scientist belonging to Randall’s unit, Sylvia Jackson, offered that her impression of Franklin was of someone who was “absolutely dedicated, a tremendously hard worker… she was enormously friendly if you gave her half a chance,” (Judson 627). Again, it is not unlikely that Watson dilated Franklin’s idiosyncrasies, such as her sometimes barbed demeanor, towards the goal of emphasizing the role of personality in science, even if it meant sacrificing a more historically accurate picture of the scientist.

More than writing dubiously about Franklin’s disposition—an admittedly subjective and personal matter—Watson seems to have embellished an entire encounter with Franklin, which constitutes a more egregious historical transgression. Namely, Watson reported an instance in which he approached Franklin about an erroneous publication by another chemist, Linus Pauling, who was also chasing the structure of DNA. Watson wrote that he began to explain to Franklin why Pauling’s proposed structure for DNA was incorrect, and that “she became increasingly annoyed” as he referred to the possibility that DNA was helical, an idea which Watson knew Franklin did not support. Watson explained that Franklin was “hardly able to control her temper,” and that “her voice rose as she told me that the stupidity of my remarks would be obvious if I would stop blubbering and look at her x-ray evidence.” Watson further recounted that he “implied that she was incompetent in interpreting x-ray pictures,” and that, having been thusly provoked, “Rosy came from behind the lab bench that separated us and began moving toward me. Fearing that in her hot anger she might strike me, I grabbed up the Pauling manuscript and hastily retreated to the open door… leaving Maurice [Wilkins] face to face with Rosy,” (Watson 96). Although Watson’s account is poignant, it has been suggested that his intense description is a result of exaggeration rather than of diligent reporting. Williams, for example, pointed out that while the encounter between Watson and Franklin “created a moment of high drama” in The Double Helix, another account—that of Maurice Wilkins—was “unsensational,” lacking any mention of a potential altercation (Williams 328). Although Wilkins was only witness to the last few moments of the supposed encounter, other scholars agree that Watson’s account is likely embellished. For example, Judson called it “a ludicrous encounter” and illustrated the absurdity of Watson’s claim of an altercation by pointing out that Franklin was a “compact young woman” while Watson was “over six feet and gawky” (Judson 627). While it cannot be sure precisely what transpired between Watson and Franklin in the moments before Wilkins arrived, it seems likely that this account, like other aspects of Watson’s characterization of Franklin, was exaggerated in an effort to dispel any misconception that the process of science is immune to human impulses.

Overall, Watson seems to have taken some degree of dramatic license in his account of the discovery of the double helix, particularly in the manner in which he deals with the characterization of Rosalind Franklin. The possible contributions of Watson’s unique narrative have been the subject of debate. On one hand, The Double Helix, while dubious in its historical accuracy, performs better than other works in communicating the sociology underlying the scientific enterprise. Professional scientists agree with his view. Revered biologist Gunther Stent, for example, said that “probably the book that contributed most to the demise of the traditional view of the scientific enterprise as an autonomous exercise of pure reason by disembodied, selfless spirits, inexorably moving toward a true knowledge of nature, was The Double Helix,” (Watson ix). On the other hand, certain historians including Horace Judson have pointed out that while Watson’s unprecedented insight into the sociological aspects of science makes the work “irresistible to quote from,” they also warn that “recovery of how the structure of DNA was determined is made easier in some ways, but in others much more difficult, by Watson’s The Double Helix” and that the work must therefore be read with caution: “watching the frenzied entrances and exits, one must attend closely to what Scaramouche does as well as what he whispers to the audience,” (Judson 10). Therefore, although Watson’s autobiography has been important in illuminating certain, perhaps lesser-known sociological aspects of the scientific enterprise, it does so at the price of performing poorly as an accurate historical reconstruction of the events surrounding the discovery of the DNA double helix.

About the Author
Sara Steins

Sara Stiens is a rising senior at Mizzou studying biochemistry and minoring in mathematics. When not studying for class or conducting laboratory research, Sara enjoys reading about the history of science, among other things. After graduating, Sara plans to attend an MD/PhD program and become a physician-scientist.