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My first year in Cambridge


My first meeting with Francis Crick
James Watson Scientist
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When I saw Perutz, he must have described his round, and would have described Francis, but I remember very much John Kendrew who just, you know, sensing that Francis and I might enjoy each other, so you know, it was... and then... and that happened with, you know... I can't imagine, within ten minutes, we didn't know exactly that I had seen the X-ray photograph. Francis knew Maurice, you know, that we should learn more from Maurice right away that you couldn't meet Francis for two minutes without learning the horrors of Pauling having beaten them to the... helix, and that they... the peptide bond, that... kept... and that Bragg was just a... felt deeply humiliated that they had published the wrong structure for polypeptide chains. And that why not use this approach for DNA?

So, it was so simple that... I'm sure at the end of the lunch the only thing that mattered to me when are we going to see Maurice, learn more details, so start building a model. So, it wasn't... I mean, it was... we met Maurice and then he... I... we learned that Rosalind had already been scheduled to give a seminar. I went to the seminar, and then met Francis who, for some reason, had arranged to go to Oxford. I think it was because he'd done the theory for the helical diffraction pattern, and wanted the pleasure of telling Dorothy Hodgkin what the theory was. So he was just going over to brag. And we'd met, somewhere we must have met in Paddington station, I think by then I had learned about the Society for Visiting Scientists, which was on Osld Burlington Street, and whether Bernal has started it. I'm sure he's started with it, and... for 10/6 or something like that, you got a bed and cornflakes for breakfast. No eggs or ham sandwich, but you got cornflakes.

So, I'm sure I spent the night in the Society for Visiting Scientists, which I think I became a member of. Met Francis, and then he started telling me how the helical theory would do it. So, he was already keen and because I had... I essentially told him DNA had no water, because there was four residues for each symmetric unit, and he thought for the whole unit cell, so it was... we didn't have to worry about water, it was just... what was the cations. And... which led me to try and meet a couple of people to see if we could measure some DNA to find out whether it was possibly magnesium or was it just sodium thymonucleate as everyone had said it was, and there was no...

So, you know, whereas Linus just... somehow I assumed the hydrogen atoms were there and you would form the hydrogen bond between... using the hydrogen, hydrogens attach to phosphate. So we built two different, superficially the same sort of structure, but... and we must have discussed the density, and surely we discussed things like density before Rosalind's seminar, you know. So that I was probably told by Francis what to try and find out. There was only... there was one standard text book called Chemical Crystallography by a Palmer chemist whose last name was Bunn, B U double N, which I had begun to try and read it soon after I got to Cambridge, but we seemed to be totally indifferent to proteins in a nucleic acid, so any problems you might get involved.

And for the first weeks in Cambridge, John Kendrew wanted to join me, and his dilemma that he had been given crystals by the cytochrome chemists... it's in my book, they don't come, the name doesn't come back to me, was in the Molteno Institute, his daughter had somehow crystallized horse myoglobin and John had taken some pictures, and he was never able to repeat it. So, we... there was a... we went out to the Cambridge slaughterhouse just to the east, I forget the... Mill Road or something, where there was a small... and where they had shot a horse that day, they were ex-race, from Newmarket, and we got the heart out and purified it and no crystals. And so that happened within the first... so there were no questions, you know, there was nothing, really nothing to do to help John. Yeah, I could have spent a year, you know, trying to crystallize... crystallize but that...

[Q] But now, had you got crystals that could have changed your direction?

You could have, and probably not, because...

[Q] It would have slowed you, perhaps, very much.

It was a case, you know, I would have had something to do, as it was I had nothing to do. And Max Perutz, I remember once... probably I never seemed unhappy because I had... I wasn't doing anything, whereas he felt in a sort of compulsive way that every minute should be spent with some accomplishment.

American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.

Listeners: Martin Raff Walter Gratzer

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time

Tags: Society for Visiting Scientists, Chemical Crystallography, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, John Kendrew, Maurice Wilkins, Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, RA Palmer

Duration: 7 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010