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Controversies surrounding The Double Helix


Writing The Double Helix
James Watson Scientist
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Almost from the... you know, our finding the DNA structure, I knew there was a story to be written up. Francis and I didn't talk about it, but I really realized there was a story when three summers afterwards, I was in Switzerland with a Swiss friend and we were going up a path to sort of quite a hard mountain, which of course I would never go for, but we were going up and then we see some climbers coming down. One of them, it's an English party, and one of them was... well, we see it's Maurice Wilkins' co-worker, who was on the Wilkins' paper, the one that comes out with ours. And he sees me and he said, 'How's Honest Jim?' And walked by. It's all he said. And you don't call someone 'Honest Jim' if you think he's honest and so, to me, there was always the question, had Crick and I behaved correctly in thinking about someone else's data, which was shown to us, not for us to use to solve the structure but, you know, we could show to be saying it's a helix, yes.

So, I had thought... New Yorker at that time, we used to have stories about crimes, sort of the annals of crime, and I thought of writing it up for the New Yorker, call it Annals of Scientific Crime, you know, and we stole them from Rosalind Franklin, then Maurice Wilkins, what was his role? And, so I only then... but that was it took eight years after the discovery, it was in '61, that I wrote the first chapter and that was because, several months before, Francis and I were to get a prize, the Research Corporation prize, $5,000 each, then a big sum of money, for finding the double helix.

And Francis was had been scheduled simultaneously to be giving three lectures at the University of Washington, so he never came, leaving me, you see, to speak for both of us, and I was on the dais with the New York intellectual, Jacques Barzun and I thought, it would be more fun just to actually sale it off how the discovery was actually made. So I did it, I got a lot of praise afterwards and people laughed and a few of the people were most surprise and liked being told that it was not a straightforward story at all, far from clear that Crick or I were ever going to get near the answer. So, after getting a very positive reception to a half hour telling of the story, I thought I'll try and write it up as a small terse book, and wrote the first chapter in the early days of September and really didn't know what I was going to, how I was going to say. And then suddenly in my head came an opening sentence for the... you know, for the first paragraph: 'I've never seen Francis', that was Francis Crick, 'in a modest mood'. And, after writing that sentence, it was fairly easy to go forth and complete the first chapter.

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, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Jacques Barzun

Duration: 5 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010