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Rosalind Franklin's rapid acceptance of the double helix


Telling people about our discovery
James Watson Scientist
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And then, you know, when did I tell? I know that the next day was a Sunday, so normally a day went. Now, my sister was still in Cambridge so I probably had Saturday night supper with her, but I don't remember. I remember the... Well, friends tell me that on Sunday night I went and told an Argentine couple who I'd become, who were friends with Francis, Luis Rinaldini, whose son now lives near us on Long Island. He said their parents had told him when he was young that I came and told them that Francis and I had made a big discovery and we'd found the secret to life the day before. So, you know, it was something I had to talk about. You know, it was... and you go first to your friends.

And at the end it was Monday morning, we had to start building this, the thing. And then Francis got a plumb line and then it was out to calculate the coordinates. So Francis did most of the work and I may have written down, and we had a ruler and so on. Pretty sloppy by today's standards. And then in a couple of days we had coordinates. And then I went to Paris a week later and told the people at the Institute Pasteur.

And then I... when I got back Francis had built the model for the A form and not the B form where the bases are tilted about 30 degrees to give you the diffraction pattern. And the... we knew the fracture when it went from A to B the fibre length increased. So that this would explain it. So Francis had explained the x-ray, the A form and the B form, and then at this stage John Kendrew... We knew we had to tell Maurice Wilkins and... but were too embarrassed, you know? We didn't want to call and say, 'We've solved your problem'. And so John Kendrew decided the best way would be to call Maurice up and say he should come up to Cambridge because Jim and Francis have found something that... a two chain structure that might be right.

And Maurice came up the next day and looked at it and told us that it was right. And before... I'm sure before he came up I had been arguing with Francis that we should put Maurice's name on the paper. Francis didn't object and we asked Maurice would he put his name on the paper? I forgot that my... it's not in the Double Helix, but it's in Maurice's biography which came out just the year before he died, that we'd asked him to put the name on. But then he went back to London and must have talked with Rosalind Franklin and he called back saying they wanted separated papers, he and Willy Seeds would write one paper and then Maurice, Rosalind and Raymond Gosling, so there'd be two papers from King's, and our shorter paper describing the structure. And I think... Then in his autobiography Maurice wrote it was the biggest mistake of his life.

[Q] Not putting his name on the paper?

Yes. You know, this paper has got the Nobel Prize you could say, and, you know, if he hadn't shown me the B form we wouldn't have done it. And... you know, it's... you could have done it, I think he knew. The main reason he didn't do it is he didn't find it... so he would have felt bad the rest of his life for getting credit for something he hadn't done. But on the other hand, particularly he'd been a... a good friend of Francis Crick and we... our aim had never been to... to beat him. It would have just sounded nicer. And of course no one really knew how the structure was found, the outside people, until I wrote the Double Helix.

[Q] But did you think you were in competition with... with Maurice? I mean...


[Q] That always seemed like a collaboration more than a competition.

Yes, and that's why putting the name on, you know, we weren't... we weren't... we were trying to get the structure.

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: Walter Gratzer Martin Raff

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

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



Tags: Double Helix, Nobel Prize, Francis Crick, John Kendrew, Luis Rinaldini, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, Willy Seeds, Raymond Gosling

Duration: 5 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010