The Double Helix

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The Double Helix

James D. Watson 1968

Author Biography
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Accounts of scientific discovery often go unread by the general public, falling only into the hands of members of the scientific community and students preparing for the field. When James D. Watson published The Double Helix in 1968, however, many readers from the general population were attracted to the book—for two reasons: it was not laden with so much scientific detail that it was incomprehensible, and, perhaps most appealing, it was controversial. Watson's story is more a personal memoir than a recording of data. While unraveling the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is one of the most remarkable discoveries in history, Watson's telling of how it was discovered is just as astounding in the world of scientific publishing.

What makes this book so unusual is the author's honesty in describing the actions and personalities of his colleagues and in admitting his own role in the "shady" side of research. Sneak peeks at other scientists' data, withheld information, alcohol, attraction to women, heated arguments, and the joy of watching a competitor make a public blunder all play as large a role in The Double Helix as X-ray crystallography, genetics, and molecular structure. Although Harvard University Press had agreed to publish Watson's book, it reneged on that agreement when prepublication galleys caused an uproar among "offended" members of the scientific community. Picked up by Atheneum Press, this account of the discovery of the "secret of life" is one of science's most provocative, unorthodox, and fun publications.

Author Biography

James Dewey Watson was born in Chicago, on April 6, 1928. He was an exceptionally bright child who excelled far beyond his school course work, resulting in early high school graduation. As an adolescent, Watson became one of the original "Quiz Kids," named for a radio show featuring young people competing in games of intelligence. At age sixteen, Watson entered the University of Chicago, earning his bachelor's degree in zoology in 1947. Three years later he completed his graduate and doctoral studies at Indiana University, earning his Ph.D. in genetics with a dissertation concerning the lethal effect of X-rays on bacterial viruses.

Watson showed no interest in genetics as an undergraduate, concentrating instead on one of his favorite subjects, ornithology, the study of birds. During his graduate studies, however, Watson read a book called What Is Life? by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Some of Schrödinger's theories concerning the nature of genetic material were so enthralling to Watson that he decided to take up the cause of finding the meaning of life by studying genes.

From 1951 to 1952, Watson held a research fellowship at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, England. Sent there to study proteins, he soon fell into discussions with other scientists on the nature of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). One of those fellow scientists was Francis Crick, with whom Watson would share a Nobel prize in 1962 (along with Maurice Wilkins) for discovering the makeup of the acid that carries genetic information in living cells. The day-by-day process of one of mankind's greatest discoveries is the topic of Watson's The Double Helix, which he subtitled A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. The key words here are personal account, for Watson's 1968 publication is one of the most unusual, provocative stories in the history of "science" writing. Despite the anger that the publication aroused in the scientific community, Watson took the controversy in characteristic stride and went on to hold other research fellowships, teach in various universities, and become director of a laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. From 1989 to 1991, Watson directed the Human Genome Project, an international effort to "map" all the genes in the human system. Today, Watson still speaks out on issues surrounding scientific research and is a major lobbyist for federal support for human genetic engineering.


Chapters 1–10

The first third of The Double Helix introduces the main players in the research and discovery of DNA's structure. Watson blends descriptions of personalities with an account of how he arrives at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, England, and begins his relationships with other scientists, both friend and foe. As a young Midwestern man on his first big adventure, Watson decides that "a scientist's life might be interesting socially as well as intellectually," and he pursues that philosophy through jaunts to the Alps as well as "midnight trips to waterfront bars."

Watson's initial purpose in going to the Cavendish lab is to study the molecular structure of proteins by building three-dimensional models of them. Upon meeting Crick, whom he claims never to have seen "in a modest mood," he is excited at finding a fellow scientist who shares his interest in studying DNA. Because the DNA molecule is too small to be looked at through a microscope, it can be "seen" only in crystallized form through an X-ray. But neither Watson nor Crick is highly skilled in crystallography, and they must turn to the experts at rival King's College in London for help in getting pictures of the molecule. This act introduces Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin into the tale. Though these two "colleagues" behave more like enemies, both are involved in researching DNA through crystallography in the King's College lab.

The three male scientists become friends, but Franklin is portrayed as a woman who has "belligerent moods" and who does "not emphasize her feminine qualities." Rather than kick Franklin out of his lab, however, Wilkins understands that he needs her expertise to help him compete with Linus Pauling, who is also working on the DNA mystery at his lab in California. Watson and Crick understand the dilemma, too, and decide they should glean as much information from Franklin—one way or another—in order to beat Pauling to the answer. The last line of Chapter 2, "The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab," sums up the tense feelings that permeate the environment at the King's College lab

In Chapter 10, Watson attends a lecture given by Franklin in which she describes the DNA molecule as a helix shape with a sugar-phosphate backbone on the outside. Watson, however, neglects to take notes on the lecture, believing he can recall Franklin's theory strictly from memory. This error will prove costly in his and Crick's progress toward building a model of DNA.

Chapters 11–21

The middle third of the book describes the experiment that costs Watson and Crick about a year of DNA research work. Because Watson cannot remember Franklin's actual words during her lecture, he gives Crick misinformation about her proposal. The major mistake in the model they build is that the backbone is on the inside, the opposite of what Franklin had said. Proud of their "discovery," however, Watson and Crick show off their model to Wilkins and Franklin. It does not take long for Franklin and others to shoot down the idea and prove that it is not only wrong but ridiculous. When Lawrence Bragg, the Nobel-Prize-winning director of the Cavendish lab, learns of the failure, he orders Watson and Crick to give up their research on DNA and leave it to the scientists at King's College.

For the next year, Crick spends most of his time working on his doctorate, while Watson studies the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). As Watson notes, "A vital component of TMV was nucleic acid, and so it was the perfect front to mask my continued interest in DNA." Also during this time, Watson invites his sister for extended visits to England, and they both have their share of social revelry and English high-life. On the down side, Watson also struggles with the possibility of losing his research fellowship and must write letters of appeal back to the United States, feigning interest in various fields in order to retain support.

Chapters 22–Epilogue

By now Peter Pauling, son of the famous Cal Tech chemist, Linus Pauling, has arrived at the Cavendish lab, where he shares office space with Watson and Crick. The three become friends and in late 1952 Pauling shows his officemates a preliminary report from his father that he plans to publish as a proposal for the structure of DNA. Watson wastes no time scrutinizing the older Pauling's work and is delighted to find a major flaw. It is apparent to Watson that "Pauling's nucleic acid … was not an acid at all.… Without the hydrogen atoms, the chains would immediately fly apart and the structure vanish." Confirming the blunder with several colleagues—one of whom "predictably expressed pleasure that a giant had forgotten elementary college chemistry"—Watson and Crick sit back and wait for Pauling to present his impossible theory to the scientific world, never once considering warning him of the humiliating mistake that he was about to make. When the Cal Tech chemist's paper is published in January, 1953, the negative reaction is quick in coming. And with their competitor licking the wounds of embarrassment, Watson and Crick become more determined than ever to resume their position in the race for DNA.

The final chapters of the book describe the various experiments they attempt before arriving at a model with the correct sequencing of the four nitrogen bases in each DNA strand. In order to reach their goal, Watson returns to Wilkins at King's College for a better look at the X rays from which he and Crick will pattern their model. Watson is happy to learn that Wilkins has secretly been copying Franklin's notes, and when he sees an X-ray photo confirming that the molecule is a helix, he cannot wait to return to the Cavendish lab to share the news with Crick. On the train back to Cambridge, Watson sketches helix-shaped molecules on the margin of a newspaper and concludes that the molecules are most likely made up of two strands of DNA—a double helix.

Once Watson and Crick publish their findings in 1953, the scientific community concedes that they have indeed revealed the secret of how genes replicate themselves. Even Linus Pauling travels from America to share in a celebration dinner. Only in the book's epilogue does Watson offer any regrets for his portrayal of Rosalind Franklin throughout his account. In the final paragraph, he admits that both he and Crick:

came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking.

Watson ends the book by noting Franklin's struggle with cancer and commends her for "working on a high level until a few weeks before her death."

Key Figures

Sir Lawrence Bragg

Lawrence Bragg is the director of the Cavendish lab and one of the founders of crystallography. His personality conflicts with Crick eventually lead to his decision to put a stop to Watson and Crick's DNA research. The older professor allows the King's College group to claim the DNA project and forces Watson and Crick to concentrate on other matters at the Cavendish lab.

Erwin Chargaff

Erwin Chargaff is an Austrian-born biochemist conducting his research at Columbia University in New York. He is an expert in DNA and the first to propose the correct pairing of the four base molecules of its structure: adenine pairing with thymine and guanine pairing with cytosine. When Watson and Crick learn of this theory, they begin to explore it, too. Eventually, they discover how to make a DNA model that allows for "Chargaff's rules," yet another step in uncovering the mystery of the molecule.

Francis Crick

Francis Crick is Watson's closest partner in the search for and discovery of the structure of DNA. Crick is twelve years older than Watson and is described by his younger colleague in The Double Helix as "almost totally unknown" and "often not appreciated." Watson points out that other colleagues think Crick talks too much and that his booming voice and laughter are very annoying to people around him. He also stresses that Crick is exceptionally bright and quick to pick up on new theories, but that he had not had the opportunity to prove himself the accomplished scientist that everyone thought he would be. As Watson notes, Crick knew he "could produce novel ideas," but "he could claim no clear-cut intellectual achievements and he was still without his Ph.D."

Media Adaptations

• An abridged edition of Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA is available on audiocassette, read by Watson. Its title is The Double Helix: The Story Behind the Discovery of DNA, and it became available in February 2000 from Soundelux.

Crick came from a middle-class family in England and was working on his advanced degree when World War II broke out. To support the war effort, he joined the English Admiralty's scientific establishment, where he was very successful at producing magnetic mines for the armed forces. After the war, however, he was not offered a future with the scientific civil services and eventually lost interest in physics. Turning his attention to biology, Crick wound up with a grant to study at the Cavendish lab, and it was there that he met Watson. At this point, neither man was concentrating specifically on DNA. As Crick's relationship with Watson grows, so does his enthusiasm for discovery. The two become partners in an admittedly underhanded scheme to gather information from other scientists, in order to speed up the process of their own research.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin is trained in crystallography and uses X rays of DNA to try to determine its structure, as opposed to experimental model building. She arrives at the King's College laboratory in Cambridge to work with Maurice Wilkins—who is using the same method to study the acid, but who is not as well trained in the field. Franklin is portrayed by Watson as an emotional, hot-tempered feminist who either "had to go or be put in her place." Her "place," as far as most of her male colleagues are concerned, is as a doting assistant who needs to "keep her emotions under control." No one, however, doubts that "she had a good brain."

Franklin puts her good brain to work in perfecting the use of X rays in studying DNA. In 1951, she announces that the structure of the molecule is a large helix with a sugar-phosphate backbone on the outside. Watson openly admits in his book that he and Crick are attracted to Franklin's theory and are not above taking a peek at her notes and pictures. Maurice Wilkins, also willing to be deceptive, secretly copies Franklin's data and shows it to Watson and Crick, along with an X-ray picture. This information points Watson and Crick in the right direction and leads specifically to an accurate model of the structure of DNA. When the Nobel Prize is awarded in 1962 for the discovery, however, Franklin is not among the recipients. In 1958, at age 37, she died of cancer without ever knowing how her work had been used to propel three male colleagues into scientific history.

Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling is a chemist at the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in Pasadena, California. He is considered one of the world's foremost scientists and is Watson and Crick's greatest rival in the race to discover the structure of DNA. In 1951, before Watson begins concentrating solely on DNA, Pauling appears to be getting closer to the answer. He writes to Wilkins in London asking for copies of the crystalline DNA X-ray photographs that Wilkins and Franklin have produced. Wilkins, however, stalls Pauling by telling him the data needs a closer look before he can release the pictures.

Watson knows up front that his chief competitor is Pauling and that Watson's own deficiency in understanding X rays is a stumbling block in catching up to the Cal Tech chemist, much less surpassing Pauling in his research. This is one of the major reasons that Watson ends up at the Cambridge lab—to learn the mathematical details of crystalline X-ray photography without having to let Pauling know that he is a "mathematically deficient biologist," as he calls himself.

Pauling has already discovered the "alpha helix" molecule (the structure of other proteins and a precursor to the double helix structure of the DNA molecule), and he did so by building models of possible configurations out of molded plastic pieces. Watson and Crick copy Pauling's method in their own research when building the double helix. When Pauling finally announces that he has solved the DNA problem with a triple helix structure, it does not take long for the scientific community to prove the theory wrong. Watson and Crick know that Pauling is about to embarrass himself by publishing an erroneous theory, but, instead of warning him, they bask in their rival's humiliating defeat.

Peter Pauling

Peter Pauling is the son of Linus Pauling. Peter is accepted as a research student at the Cavendish lab in Cambridge, where he eventually shares an office with Watson and Crick. Peter shares letters from his father in which the older Pauling describes his DNA research at Cal Tech. Peter also shows his officemates the preliminary paper his father has written on the triple helix—an erroneous theory that the older Pauling will publish with no forewarning from his eager competitors.

Max Perutz

Max Perutz is an Austrian-born chemist working at the Cavendish lab primarily in the area of X-ray diffraction. He is a close colleague of Bragg and is the leader of Crick's unit at the lab. When Watson arrives in Cambridge, his first assignment is to work under Perutz learning X-ray crystallography. Perutz is a tolerant, friendly person who often acts as a mediator between Crick and Bragg.


See Rosalind Franklin

James D. Watson

As the author and main figure in The Double Helix, James Watson presents exactly what the subtitle of his book claims: a personal account of his work as a scientist. Watson is a young genius in his field at the time the events in the book take place, but he does not demonstrate a know-it-all arrogance. He is also willing to criticize himself, which he does fairly often in the book. During the two years he spends at the Cavendish laboratory, his work on X-ray crystallography and on building a model of DNA often leads him down the wrong path, and he readily admits it.

Watson's closest colleague is Francis Crick, but there are three other people who play a major role in this story. In the book's opening paragraphs, Watson claims, "I knew the tale was not simple and certainly not as the newspapers reported. Chiefly it was a matter of five people: Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, Linus Pauling, Francis Crick, and me." Watson makes Crick the topic of the first chapter, stating, "Francis was the dominant force in shaping my part." He credits Crick's role so highly not only because the two men share a passion for finding the secret of DNA but also because they are able to tolerate each other's personality quirks and annoying habits. Watson's relationship with Rosalind Franklin is also important but for a much different reason. Female scientists are not always highly regarded in the male-dominated profession, and Watson's account demonstrates the subtle undermining of Franklin's contribution to the discovery of DNA, as well as blatant discriminatory language, which he later regrets.

Watson does not pretend to be all business in his endeavor to unravel one of science's greatest mysteries. He enjoys drinking and spends many evenings in English pubs. He is always on the lookout for a pretty face and does not shy away from discussing his attraction to a variety of women. Furthermore, some have said that his account is unprofessionally candid when it comes to describing colleagues and their relationships with him, as well as among themselves. Perhaps the most striking characteristic about Watson is his childlike honesty in telling a story the way that he remembers it. Regardless of whose toes are stepped on or whose personal conflicts are paraded in public, Watson is simply blunt when speaking his mind, never hesitating to display his own faults along with everyone else's.

Maurice Wilkins

Maurice Wilkins is a physicist-turned-biologist working at the University of London's King's College. (There is also a King's College in Cambridge, and both are mentioned in the book.) Wilkins is the foremost scientist studying the molecular structure of DNA, at least before Watson and Crick arrive on the scene at the Cavendish lab in Cambridge. Wilkins becomes acquainted with Crick first, and he is the primary reason that Crick does not turn his attention to the study of DNA prior to meeting Watson. As Watson points out, there is a scientific code of ethics in England that prevents one scientist from honing in on a problem that a colleague has been studying for years, and solving the DNA puzzle at that time was "the personal property of Maurice Wilkins." Ironically, Watson also credits Wilkins with being the one "who had first excited me about X-ray work on DNA." Wilkins had given a lecture on the topic at a scientific conference in Naples in early 1951, and Watson was in attendance.

Throughout Watson's account, Wilkins is a leading figure in sharing information with Watson and Crick, even though he and Rosalind Franklin are actually competing with the two Cavendish scientists. There is no malicious tension between these two teams as there is between Watson and Crick and their rival in America, Linus Pauling. For Wilkins, the greatest tension comes from his own "partner," Rosalind Franklin. According to Watson, Wilkins treats Franklin more as an assistant (and Watson refers to her as such) instead of an equal—even though she is an expert crystallographer and a great asset in learning about DNA through X-ray diffraction. The tension between Wilkins and Franklin is a major distraction to their work. Both persist, however, and Wilkins eventually ends up sharing the 1962 Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick.


Honesty in Reporting

When Watson set out to record the events that led to the discovery of DNA's structure, he did not plan to offend, malign, or publicly humiliate the people who would be a part of his book. His intention was to present an honest, accurate account that would naturally include the bad along with the good aspects of how science gets done. As he claims in the preface to The Double Helix, "science seldom proceeds in the straightforward logical manner imagined by outsiders. Instead, its steps forward (and sometimes backward) are often very human events in which personalities and cultural traditions play major roles." Watson admits that his perception of some colleagues and events had changed in the years between 1953, when the discovery was made, and the mid-to-late 1960s, when he was writing the book. However, he defends his decision to compile material based on first impressions by claiming that doing otherwise "would fail to convey the spirit of an adventure characterized both by youthful arrogance and by the belief that the truth, once found, would be simple as well as pretty."

As with most "adventures," the race to be the first to make a major scientific discovery provides multiple opportunities for human pride and "youthful arrogance" to override pure process and fair play. Watson is so up-front about his own follies and conniving that it is difficult to condemn him for exposing the same faults in others. His attempt in The Double Helix to come clean about common scientific research practices retains an air of innocence throughout the account. Even in his blunt reporting of the problems he and his male colleagues face with female scientist Rosalind Franklin, the candor is naïve and childlike: "There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents." Watson does not explain what a scientist's lips and clothing have to do with the discovery of a gene's makeup, nor does he apologize for the odd, offhand comments. He simply records his first impression of "Rosy" as he remembers it, all in keeping with his goal of presenting the whole picture.

While Franklin and Watson exhibit no sign of friendship between 1951 and 1953, Watson does not show his closest comrade, Francis Crick, any greater mercy in regard to personal exposure in the book. In addition to noting Crick's quick wit and scientific prowess, Watson also portrays him as a loud-mouthed, impulsive womanizer who likes to drink and attend parties. One story recounts a mistake Crick made in attending a costume party dressed as the red-bearded Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: "As soon as he entered he realized that it was a ghastly error, since not one of the young women enjoyed being tickled by the wet, scraggly hairs when he came within kissing distance."

Cultural differences fare no better in Watson's recollections. He despises English food but appreciates the "English sense of fair play" in regard to one scientist's respect for another's first crack at solving a problem. France, however, is a place "where fair play obviously did not exist," and in the United States, "One would not expect someone at Berkeley to ignore a first-rate problem merely because someone at Cal Tech had started first." Again, Watson charges ahead with accusations—founded or unfounded—all in the spirit of youthful arrogance and simple truth.

Topics for Further Study

  • Write an essay expressing your views on the possibility of cloning human beings. Include fair comments on the opposing viewpoint and tell why you believe the opposition is wrong.
  • Recall a time when you had to complete a group project at school or for an organization to which you belong. Write a report on how the project was conducted, from start to finish, using the style and information you find most useful to explain the details. Also discuss others' attitudes and views, especially those you worked with closely.
  • DNA testing has been used in solving violent crimes and paternity suits. Research one particular case, and write a report on why the testing was used and what controversies surrounded it.
  • Science fiction and futuristic novels have enjoyed a large readership for decades. Write a short story set in the future, and include details about human life based on actual scientific research at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Scientific Discovery

While the theme of scientific discovery may seem obvious in a book about just that, the topic is somewhat clouded by the saucy manner in which it is described. Nonetheless, Watson's account is foremost a celebration of science—an earnest recognition of its possibilities in spite of naysayers who often warn against the results of research that over-step certain boundaries. While The Double Helix does not address this concern at length, one need only read later material written by Watson to understand his mission, then and now, to keep science moving forward. In a Time article entitled "The Double Helix Revisited," Watson discusses his work with the Human Genome Project (which normally brings "cloning" to mind for the general public), saying that "no other big science project … has been carried out with such zeal for the common good." Citing possibilities for cures for diseases that are often hereditary, such as cancer and Alzheimer's, Watson's zest for supporting research is unmistakable—and the obvious force behind his discovery of the structure of DNA.



The Double Helix is set primarily in England in the early 1950s. As Watson notes in the preface, he wants his book "to catch the atmosphere of the early postwar years in England," depicting the public's eagerness to rebuild spirits, as well as buildings, in the aftermath of World War II. He accomplishes this by including such trivialities as what type of wine is enjoyed with certain dinners and conversations that take place over morning coffee or lunches with gooseberry pie. He entwines his account of scientific data with comments on movies he sees, intellectual games he plays with members of high-society, and the fun he has playing "Murder"—a whodunit role-playing game—in the dark upstairs floors of friends' houses. He goes on at some length about Crick's half-French wife, Odile, who "came to Cambridge and hastened [Crick's] revolt against the stodginess of the middle classes." Watson favors Odile's cooking and spends many evenings in the Crick's home enjoying good wine and good conversation, but he is dismayed about the couple's disinterest in political issues. He attributes their neutrality toward politics to "the war, whose grimness they now wished to forget."

But World War II, of course, was a conflict in which science played a greater role than at any previous time. The atomic bomb introduced a particular type of "grimness" that resulted in unprecedented destruction. Physicists in particular knew that, left unchecked, their research could bring about as much evil as good. So the pace quickened to learn more about, and to control better, all prospects of scientific research. This was the western European world that Watson entered in 1951 and the one he wished to capture in the setting of his book. It was a world of great hope and renewed spirits, as well as one of caution and competition brought on by the recent past.


The tone of The Double Helix is much different from what one may expect from a "science" book. Free of heavyhanded, dry-data accounting, Watson's book is accessible to a lay audience; the book is humorous in places and predominantly light in tone. Writing for the Nation in 1968, critic J. Bronowski claims it has "a quality of innocence and absurdity that children have when they tell a fairy story. The style is shy and sly, bumbling and irreverent, artless and good-humored and mischievous." Critic Elliot Fremont-Smith, writing for The New York Times, describes it in terms of a good mystery: "a thrilling book from beginning to end—delightful, often funny, vividly observant, full of suspense and mounting tension." These are all adjectives that seem out of place in regard to scientific reporting, and, yet, what they suggest is actually the reason that the book has enjoyed success, as well as notoriety, in both science and lay communities. Surely, many other critics have had much more harsh things to say about the content of Watson's book, but those who have commented on its style and tone generally agree that it is more sporty and fun than intentionally hurtful.

Historical Context

Watson was teaching at Harvard University when he began to compile the notes, letters, scientific data, and photographs that would become the controversial bestseller, The Double Helix. It was the mid-1960s, and the United States was involved in an unpopular war in Southeast Asia. Watson was writing about events that occurred in England in the early 1950s, when many European countries were still recovering from the devastating effects of World War II. During the years between the end of the Second World War and the middle of the Vietnam War, remarkable advances occurred in many areas of science and medicine: Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio, Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant, Frederick Sanger discovered the molecular structure of insulin, the birth control pill was developed, and the first commercial nuclear power plants opened in America. Marshall Nirenberg's cracking of the genetic code in the early 1960s was a direct spin-off of Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. The DNA discovery showed that the molecule was made up of the chemicals adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytocine, but the next step was to determine how to sequence the chemicals within the DNA—that is, how to read the code that Watson and Crick had discovered. Nirenberg shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for his part in discovering how to interpret the DNA code.

While most of the scientific discoveries of the mid-to-late twentieth century resulted in healthier people and animals, more efficient energy, fascinating exploration of outer space, and the birth of the computer age, not all advancements have been heralded as great breakthroughs by the general public. Nothing demonstrates a less-than-positive public reception of discovery more than advancements made in the area of genetics. The "acceptable" work done by biologists and geneticists in the 1950s and 1960s paved the way for the first attempt at genetic engineering—the alteration of genetic material—in the early 1970s. This was the beginning of the "cloning" era, which is still in full swing despite worldwide debates on the ethical issues involved. Watson was and still is one of the field's major proponents.

Compare & Contrast

1950s: Animal scientist C. R. Henderson helps New York dairy cattle breeders become world leaders in applied genetics. The key is artificial insemination, which creates a larger number of milk-producing cows.

1960s: The Green Revolution is a worldwide attempt to increase food production by creating plant varieties more responsive to specific fertilizers. It results in a higher yield of food, but there are concerns over health issues and over political control of which farmers are allowed to grow more crops.

1990s: "FlavrSavr" tomatoes—genetically engineered for a longer shelf life—are introduced into American grocery stores. Few consumers are impressed and some worry that the produce is unhealthy.

1950s: Biologist Arthur Kornberg produces DNA in a test tube.

1960s: Biologists fuse human and mouse cells to create hybrid cells that cast off all but a few of the human chromosomes. Since any human proteins recognized in these hybrid cells must have been produced by genes located on the remaining human chromosomes, scientists are able to assign specific genes to specific chromosomes.

1990s: Dolly the sheep is the first adult animal cloned. Researchers in the Human Genome Project announce the complete sequencing of the DNA in chromosome 22. This is the first human chromosome to be completely sequenced.

Genetic engineering received somewhat better reception in its use on fruits and vegetables. In the decades since DNA's discovery, scientists have experimented with plants to create a longer shelf life for various types of produce. The approach has also been used to increase proteins in the milk of dairy cattle and to reduce the amount of fat in cattle raised for meat. In the 1950s and 1960s, the work of scientists was not as highly publicized as it is today. However, the emergence of television into the homes of millions during this period, along with the onslaught of news programs, increased the ability of the average person to learn more about scientific experimentation while it was happening. In some cases, this greater awareness has led to a greater outcry. Now, with the possibility to replicate human genes, the concern is who will decide what the desirable traits are to be cloned and how cloning will be regulated. Proponents on both sides of the issue present valid points. Given the fifty years of fervent growth in genetics since Watson and Crick unraveled the first DNA mystery, it is unlikely that gene research will come to a halt. Many scientists, though, have expressed a willingness to keep an eye on issues beyond those occurring in the laboratory.

Critical Overview

The critical reception of The Double Helix is as much a part of the book's reputation as the content itself. One cannot read it without assuming the impact it must have had on the people whose names appear on its pages in an unfavorable light. The most telling response on how the book was received came from the two men with whom Watson shared the Nobel Prize and whom he considered friends: Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. When Crick and Wilkins read the publication galleys of the book, both were outraged at Watson's portrayal of them and their colleagues. Crick threatened to bring suit against Watson, and Harvard University Press decided that was enough controversy to make it bow out of the agreement to publish The Double Helix. After some slight watering-down and the addition of an epilogue, the book was finally sent to press by Atheneum.

After publication, the criticism was just as scornful. In an article published in Science and Engineering in 1968, biologist Robert L. Sinsheimer calls the account "unbelievably mean in spirit, filled with the distorted and cruel perceptions of childish insecurity.… This book is filled with character assassination, collective and individual, direct and indirect." There were those, however, who took an opposite viewpoint. Writing for the New York Review of Books, critic P. B. Medawar predicts that it "will be an enormous success, and deserves to be so—a classic in the sense that it will go on being read." Perhaps the best objective suggestion came from fellow scientist Gunther S. Stent, who convinced Watson in 1980 to allow a critical edition of the book to be brought out. Stent edited this edition, which contains the entire original text, plus overviews of the historical and scientific setting of the account, as well as a selection of reviews. In Stent's words:

Although nothing could resemble less a treatise on the philosophy or sociology of science than Watson's autobiographical memoir, it nevertheless brought home, in a painless and enjoyable literary style, important insights into how the process of scientific discovery actually works.


Pamela Steed Hill

Hill is a writer and associate editor for a university communications department. In this essay, she contends that Watson's unusual style of scientific reporting makes the work more appealing to the general public and does not deserve the severe criticism it received from the scientific community.

A set standard for science writing has long been held sacred within the scientific community, which compiles the material, writes it, reads it, and, of course, understands it. It is a standard that calls for straightforward, objective accounting with few subjective observations and no emotional outbursts or anecdotal asides. No one would argue that Watson is not a member of this community and, yet, his reporting of the discovery of DNA's structure breaks every rule in the standard of scientific writing. As predicted, the author fielded much criticism for The Double Helix after its publication, primarily from his own colleagues and others in the field of science. But something else resulted as well. Many people outside the scientific community wanted to read it, too. Here was a book that the 'average' reader could enjoy—and one whose topic, after all, could have implications on the health and future of every living being.

Curiosity is only one aspect of human nature, but it is a powerful one. People on the "outside" want to know what's happening on the "inside," and scientific research is one of those inside practices that arouses the general public's eagerness to be clued in. Usually, however, the material is too complicated to be accessible and the presentation is too formal to be interesting. The Double Helix is both accessible and interesting because Watson includes the real stuff of life in his account—quirky personalities, insecurities, a bit of arrogance, and much competitive spirit. Like it or not, the story of one scientist nearly coming to blows with another in the lab holds a general reader's attention more than a description of one molecule bonding to another.

But Watson also includes the matters of strict science. He recounts a variety of experiments that were tested and their results, and he is very technical in describing why the structure of the DNA molecule has to be double helix in shape. Even these serious, instructional passages, however, at least seem more comprehensible with a backdrop of fine English ales, highbrow parties, and dinners at the "Green Door," as Crick and his wife's apartment is fondly known. The question, then, is whether Watson goes too far in his attempt to "tell it like it was"—whether his tale is offensive and meanspirited or simply uncharacteristically entertaining, as well as informative.

Look at Watson's treatment of the people who make up the major cast of characters in this dramatic tale of scientific discovery. First, Crick is his closest partner during the research and also one of the loudest protesters against the book's publication. Watson portrays Crick in light of other people's impressions of him, but those impressions are founded on reality. Crick does have a loud voice, he is a boisterous individual, and, no, he has not yet completed his Ph.D. The latter point is a sore spot for the scientist, but in divulging the information, Watson implies that one does not necessarily need a degree on paper in order to be part of one of mankind's greatest discoveries.

His personal descriptions of Crick do not appear malicious but fun loving and high-spirited. He claims that Crick's excitement over a new theory—even when it turns out to be wrong—does "a great deal to liven up the atmosphere of the lab" and that "Almost everyone enjoyed these manic moments." When discussing Crick's fondness for English pubs and pretty women, Watson also mentions his colleague's solid marriage to Odile, who "did not mind this predilection, seeing that it went along with, and probably helped, his emancipation from the dullness of his Northampton upbringing." Yes, one can understand that Crick would not want the intimate details of his life to appear in a book he had no control over, but the severity of his reaction seems overdone compared to Watson's amicable tone.

Maurice Wilkins is another key member of the DNA group that harshly criticized Watson for The Double Helix. Perhaps Wilkins' complaints derive from a desire to protect his colleagues because he himself is portrayed very favorably in the book. Watson credits him with being the one who first aroused Watson's interest in X-ray work on DNA and who calmed the author's fears about not knowing enough chemistry. He describes Wilkins' personality in congenial terms and displays a great deal of admiration for his colleague's work. The information that Wilkins may have most wanted struck from the record was his relationship with his lab partner, Rosalind Franklin. Understandably, he would like to downplay the lack of respect that he and other male scientists showed her, especially since most of them came to regret those feelings after she died at an early age. But here again, Watson does not single out Wilkins as the "bad guy" who thinks a woman has no place in a laboratory. Instead, Watson takes as much blame upon himself for the unfair treatment, and he openly states his regrets in the epilogue.

Franklin, then, is the one who takes the brunt of the book's truly offensive language and attitude, but, ironically, she is the one who did not live to see its publication. Perhaps if she had, she would have been the one most amused by its content, rather than angered. Her unwarranted predicament is made clear by Watson's admissions of guilt, leaving Franklin no need to defend herself in the public's eye.

What Do I Read Next?

  • In his 1994 publication of The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Francis Crick presents an interesting and controversial theory on the makeup of human life. His general assumption is that a person's "mind" is really just a connection of nerve cells and associated molecules. The "soul," he contends, does not exist.
  • Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers (2000) is an informative look at food production today. Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston argue that genetically engineered food presents health risks to humans and is bad news for the environment.
  • Physician and lawyer Philip R. Reilly discusses true tales of crime, history, illness, ethics, and human behavior in Abraham Lincoln's DNA and Other Adventures in Genetics. Published in 2000, this book illustrates interesting principles of human genetics and broader issues surrounding the more controversial tales.
  • In the classic novel Brave New World, reprinted in 1998 by Perennial Classics, Aldous Huxley describes a future in which rapid advances in science and technology lead to the government's increasing ability to gain control over the population. In the new world, everyone consumes daily grams of "soma" to fight depression, babies are born in laboratories, and the most popular form of entertainment is a "Feelie," a movie that stimulates sight, hearing, and touch.

This leaves Linus Pauling as the final major figure in Watson's account. One would think that because Pauling is the greatest "enemy" of the Cavendish lab team that Watson would save his most discrediting remarks for the competitor in America. But again, it is not so. Watson does nothing short of praise Pauling as "Cal Tech's fabulous chemist," and he admits being humbled before such a highly respected, brilliant scientist who was already well ahead in the race to discover the structure of DNA. It is true that Watson relates the details of what is perhaps Pauling's worst scientific blunder—Pauling publishes a possible theory for DNA's structure, forgetting a basic principle of chemistry that makes it impossible. And Watson is not able to resist mentioning how he and other scientists got such a kick out of watching the great one stumble (not fall), but Pauling is not the one who should feel belittled by this story.

Who really looks bad here? It is the storyteller himself and his reveling colleagues who appear in an unfavorable light. Even more callous than laughing at a competitor when he's down is having the opportunity to prevent a folly and not doing it. Watson and Crick are privy to Pauling's faulty theory after reading a letter Pauling wrote to his son describing the proposal. Before Pauling goes to print with the proposal, they could have warned him of the problem and spared him the embarrassment, but they make a conscious effort not to do so. The mood is, in fact, one of celebration, and a visit to a favorite pub is in order. As Watson puts it, "The moment its doors opened for the evening we were there to drink a toast to the Pauling failure." Similar to the Franklin case, Pauling is more a victim than a bully. He has no reason to hide anything from the public, since Watson's display of his own deceptive moves and juvenile behavior is enough to swing the reader's support clearly in Pauling's direction.

Other people mentioned in The Double Helix are as much fair game for Watson's freewheeling scrutiny as are the main players, and many of them were less than pleased with their descriptions and Watson's recollection of the way things happened.

It is not the intention of this essay to suggest that all the people involved should have laughed off any misrepresentations of themselves that wound up in a best-selling book, nor that they could have reacted in some robotic fashion, showing no concern one way or the other. It is natural to want to avoid public ridicule, and when one person seemingly forces it upon another, the desire for revenge is no surprise. Watson's detractors would have received satisfaction out of stopping the book's publication. Perhaps if they could have moved past the feeling of personal attack, they would have seen that the individual under greatest assault in this story is Watson himself. Rarely is there found such honest admission of dubious behavior and such humbling self-exposure in an autobiographical account, especially in the serious, astute world of science writing.

But does a candid confession of one man's guilt justify his public display of others who share in the "crimes" but are not so willing to admit it? The answer probably depends upon whether the person asked has his or her name in the book. What is not so ambiguous is that more people in the world were able to read, understand, and enjoy an account of a remarkable discovery because the author chose to write in a manner that welcomed the general public into the esoteric world of scientific research. And it is safe to assume that Watson's book would not be in the hands of so many students—science majors or not—had its material been presented in standard, scientific fashion.


Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on The Double Helix, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

John Limon

In the following essay, Limon examines The Double Helix as a literary work, arguing that Watson's "sense of literature … is unique and even (conceivably) systematically worked out."

"Here was a book that the 'average' reader could enjoy—if not completely comprehend—and one whose topic, after all, could have implications on the health and future of every living being."

James Watson first earned his fame in 1953 as the discoverer, with Francis Crick, of the structure of the DNA molecule; in 1968, he became generally notorious as the author of a scandalous memoir about that discovery; in 1980, he gained an expanded celebrity as the author of a canonized work of literature. One might have thought that the last two events ought to have been more nearly identical, given that they are based on the publication and republication of a single book, The Double Helix— except that the memoir, which some reviewers at the time of its controversial publication dismissed along with Françoise Gilot's Life with Picasso, was brought out in 1980 in a Norton Critical Edition. The Norton people do this occasionally to works that would not have seemed likely candidates for literature courses (they publish a book of Darwin selections called Darwin, as well as Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population) ; but in every such case, as clearly as I can gather from their catalogue, it has taken at least a century for nonliterature to soften into literature. The decision that The Double Helix, a memoir with too much science in it to be followed without aids, and printed in the Norton edition with scientific papers, can now be welcomed into the literary canon is worth contemplating.

I want to consider what it means to classify The Double Helix as literature—not by a profitless inquiry into the meaning of the term, but by explicating what Watson himself seems to mean by his foray into literary regions. I shall argue that his sense of literature, defined implicitly in terms of its relationship to science, is unique and even (conceivably) systematically worked out. But first I should mention the generic suggestions of Watson's early reviewers. From the beginning, reviewers—even nonliterary ones, which is what the book first attracted, since it was not immediately seen to be canonical—understood that the generic issue was critical to an evaluation of the work, and what they thought on the subject turns out to be extremely fruitful.

The most amusing generic controversy was over the alleged resemblance of The Double Helix to Pepys's Diary. Sir Lawrence Bragg, who wrote the foreword to Watson's memoir, raised the issue innocently enough: Watson writes, Bragg said, "with a Pepys-like frankness." Alex Comfort agreed, with only slightly enhanced specificity: "The tactlessness … is two-way, as in Pepys." Robert Merton, though inclined to think the book sui generis ("I know of nothing quite like it in all the literature about scientists at work"), nevertheless recalled Pepys while reading the section of The Double Helix in which Watson hopes to bond with Maurice Wilkins, who knew at the time more about DNA than the neophyte Watson, by offering Wilkins his beautiful sister.

On the other hand, the idea of Watson as Pepys redivivus has greatly dismayed certain readers of the book, notably John Lear, the science writer. Some of Lear's lucubration on the subject is worth quoting, not merely for amusement value.

This book is being acclaimed as the Pepys diary of modern science. I cannot understand why.

Samuel Pepys not only possessed a gift for dry precision in writing but his daily accounting of his life between the years 1659 and 1669 was a miniature etching of the great and small events experienced by the city of London during that period. Pepys was the secretary of the British Admiralty and its singlehanded savior from accusations of scandal in the House of Commons, to which he later won election. He participated in the restoration of King Charles II, endured the visitation of London by the plague, helped to pull down the buildings to control the ruination of the city by the Great Fire. He was an amateur musician, an assiduous gamester, a skilled raconteur, a loyal friend, and enough of a scientist to belong to the Royal Society.

What comparable credentials has James D. Watson, author of The Double Helix?

"Insofar as Watson is a literary artist, some of his subtlest technique has been devoted to the problem of making a memoir read as vividly as a diary, and giving a work that is supposed to have some of the inconsequence of a diary the suspense of a novel."

The controversy is at this emotional point joined by Watson's editor, Gunther S. Stent, who answers in effect that it is too hard on Watson to hold against him his failure to survive a restoration, a holocaust, and an outbreak of plague at the Cavendish lab. I would like to add a further critique of Lear's statement, beginning at the end. Either Lear, I believe, has not in fact read Pepys, or he is disingenuous. First, the phrase "enough of a scientist to belong to the Royal Society" means precisely nothing. Pepys was no scientist at all. He could not follow much of the science he read or witnessed. He enjoyed a scientific experiment in much the spirit he liked a play by Dryden, or a portrait by Lely, or a curiosity (a bearded woman, for example), or any attractive female. He wanted to be delighted, amused, astonished; he wanted to look at something novel, ingenious, or pretty. There is, as it happens, an interesting connection between Pepys and Watson as Baconians; but if Lear's idea is to show Pepys's manifold superiority to Watson, he picks an odd note on which to conclude.

And the penultimate term, "a loyal friend," is clearly meant to be a fatal blow to Watson's respectability, since he betrayed very many friends in The Double Helix. And Pepys was, in his way, loyal. But I wonder if Lear remembers the Pepys entry, not untypical, of 20 December 1664.

Up and walked to Deptford, where after doing something at the yard, I walked, without being observed, with Bagwell home to his house and there was very kindly used, and the poor people did get a dinner for me in their fashion—of which I also eat very well. After dinner I found occasion of sending him abroad; and then alone avec elle je tentoy à faire ce que je voudrais, et contre sa force je le faisoy, bien que pas à mon contentment. By and by, he coming back again, I took leave and walked home.

This is presumably what Lear calls "dry precision," but it is not a passage he would admire if it appeared in Watson's work.

Nevertheless, Lear does in fact identify some of the right questions, even if he gets all the answers wrong. For if Pepys is willing to take a friend's wife, cruelty to the friend is no part of his intention; and any attempt to place The Double Helix generically by reference to Pepys must begin with the fact that Pepys wrote a diary that hurt no one, and Watson a memoir that hurt everyone. The neatness of that opposition, it is true, begins to dissolve the second it is formulated. What Pepys wrote was not entirely a diary. According to his editors, Robert Latham and William Matthews, a given entry was occasionally not written on the day in question, and the manuscript was, quite certainly, intended for eventual publication. Inversely, Watson attempts to suggest artificially a diary's vigor: "I have attempted to recreate my first impressions of the relevant events and personalities rather than present an assessment which takes into account the many facts I have learned since the structure was found." But the closest we can come to assimilating the two works is to say that Pepys wrote a diary that aspires to the timelessness of (a sort of natural) history, and Watson a personal history that aspires to the immediacy of a diary. So if Lear is wrong to distinguish Watson and Pepys absolutely on moral grounds—the grounds on which everyone else likens them—still there is at least a relative moral distinction, a distinction that leads to a generic clue. The question is what to call a memoir that works with much artistic success to acquire the vividness of a diary, and as a corollary assumes the privileges of a diary.

Finally, though Lear's referring to Pepys as something of a scientist is wrong and illogical, nevertheless it gets us somewhere in determining what The Double Helix is (though, in this case, Lear inadvertently allows us to see a similarity in Pepys and Watson). For if Pepys wanted his diary to be more than a diary, it was probably not so much out of a desire for literary fame as out of a Baconian virtuoso's willingness to put forward the facts of his life for whatever value they may have to some future generalization. And if Watson wants his memoir to simulate a diary, he means he will not let "the many facts [he has] learned since" obscure his first impressions. He does not classify himself in 1968 as an interpreter with deeper interpretations, but rather as a fact collector with more facts. If Pepys's Diary is literature, it is a literature of facts; the English novel grew out of the same Baconian, empirical factuality. By an analogy of beginnings and ends, can we think of Watson as returning literature and the novel to the fact—not to realism, but to the fact? Pepys likes a fact the same way he likes a pretty woman; Watson's DNA model was "too pretty not to be true"; this is a Baconian esthetics.

My suggestion that Watson may have had not merely a literary but some novelistic intention needs to be justified. It is not justification enough that several reviewers thought that Watson's characterizations are, as Comfort said, "essentially novelistic," or that his social sensitivity, as Lwoff put it, is "worthy of a first-class novelist," or that some of the personal politics is the sort of "stuff," in Merton's words, "that abounds in fiction but is rare in the proper histories of scientific ideas." What all this indicates is that though several reviewers, trying to invoke a literary work of similar frankness, seemed drawn to Pepys as something similarly just beyond the bounds of the novel and fiction, other reviewers were not so generically orthodox. But certain reviewers were not the only ones thinking of novels; Watson himself did, which is why the original title of his book was Honest Jim, an allusion to Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, published in the same year as Watson and Crick's first papers on the DNA structure.

The title was suggested to Watson by an odd occurrence which becomes the opening anecdote of the book. It is 1955, two years after Watson and Crick's success; Watson is in the Alps, walking to a restaurant at the foot of a glacier; going up he meets a scientist coming down named Willy Seeds, who had been a tangential figure in the DNA race. "Willy soon spotted me, slowed down, and momentarily gave the impression that he might remove his rucksack and chat for a while. But all he said was, 'How's Honest Jim?' and quickly increasing his pace was soon below me on the path." This is the entire anecdote, and is itself a fine example of the Baconian esthetics. Watson tells this extremely wounding story as if it happened to someone else.

But the more important aspect of the opening anecdote is that it gives Watson's book, from the beginning, a relationship to the novel. Several of the first reviewers of The Double Helix caught the allusion: Peter Medawar titled his review "Lucky Jim," and Jacob Bronowski observed that the book would have been called Lucky Jim"if Amis had not been so inconsiderate as to make this title famous in advance." What needs to be shown is that Willy Seeds's comment is in fact a brilliant bit of literary taxonomy, and that the connection brings out the novelistic potential of Watson's pseudo-diaristic, scientific memoir.

Perhaps most important, Lucky Jim and The Double Helix have the same basic structure: failure-failure-failure-stunning success. Thus the novel form that Watson follows in following Amis can be further classified. Watson is in the picaresque tradition; The Double Helix is an "intellectual knockabout," as Bronowski says. All the reader's considerable pleasure, in both Amis and Watson, is in knowing that every disaster will lead the hero by a logic of disasters to a fairy-tale triumph over all enemies.

In both cases, however, the reader's considerable pleasure in watching the disasters unfold into a triumph is balanced against an undeniable retrospective guilt. Both protagonists are wonderfully oblivious to normal considerations of British academic gamesmanship and manners; the problem is that they both can be brutal and boorish on the right side. When Watson finds himself ignoring the tutelage of Herman Kalckar, he worries that Herman "minded the fact that [he] was only seldom around." But the hope is that since Herman "appeared very vague about most things" he "might not yet have really noticed." Watson seems to get the terms of many of his portrayals from Amis, and certainly in this case Kalckar is rather like Welch père in Lucky Jim—what Watson remembers hoping is that Kalckar is Welchian in his vague inability to notice or remember an affront ("There was a fair chance that Welch hadn't noticed what Johns had told him, since he'd presumably only told him once"). And when Watson rather brutally dismisses the old, distinguished English biologists who give "fuzzyminded speculations over the wireless on topics like the role of the geneticist in this transitional age of changing values," he may well be congratulating himself on never having been forced to give the sort of talk that Jim Dixon gives, and travesties, on the role of the historian who remembers Merrie England in our new, valueless, consumer age.

But the two Jims are even more brutal about women than they are about the senescent and stupid—women are "popsies" in both books. The most distressing connection between Jim Dixon and Jim Watson is their treatment of intellectual women: if the portrait of Rosalind Franklin by Watson is not influenced directly by the Amis-Dixon demolition of Margaret Peel, it is an extraordinary coincidence. In both cases it is considered wrong, nearly a sexual sin on the part of the aggressive, often hysterically neurotic academic woman that she does not take, as Watson says of "Rosy," "even a mild interest in clothes." (Actually, it is not that Margaret Peel is uninterested in dress; she is simply always mistaken about it.) On the other hand, prettiness in women is very nearly all-in-all.

I use the term pretty advisedly—it is one of the key words in both books. Jim Dixon spends much of the novel "aiming to secure … the three prettiest girls in the class" for his own tutorial. And Margaret says to him, "Ah, you always were one for a pretty face, weren't you? Covers a multitude is what I always say." Jim, contemplating this, finds it "profoundly true." In The Double Helix, the adjective is omnipresent: all the desire in the memoir is divided between the search for the "pretty truth" about the pretty double helix, and the search for pretty girls. The two esthetic objects compete for the attention of both Watson and Crick. The word "beautiful," or any comparably strong synonym, almost never appears in either book. It gets attached to only two people in The Double Helix, one of whom is a man and one of whom is Watson's sister. As a consequence, it would seem, there is surprisingly little sex or sensuality in either book. In Lucky Jim, we generally discover how little sex is in fact going on: the pretty Christine Callaghan has not been sleeping with the loathsome Bertrand Welch, and Margaret had not had an affair with someone named Catchpole. In The Double Helix, the only sex explicitly referred to is between bacteria, and all the prettiness does not result in any erotic feeling whatever.

All this will have much importance in placing The Double Helix generically: when all things are correctly paired, in Watson's comprehensive vision, their pairing is "pretty" and specifically asexual, including the disciplinary pair literature-science. But for now I only want to make the more limited point that Watson's retrospective view of 1953 in the English academic world is significantly derived from Amis's. For Jim Dixon is not only lucky, he is honest: "'That's good,' Dixon said, his spirits rising as opportunity for greater honesty seemed to be approaching." And Jim Watson is not only honest, he is lucky. The epigraph of Lucky Jim,

Oh, lucky Jim,
How I envy him.
Oh, lucky Jim,
How I envy him

might just as well have introduced The Double Helix. The question of Watson's luck—is he a good scientist or was he merely in the right place at the right time?—is general among the early reviewers. Medawar has the most authoritative word: "I do not think Watson was lucky except in the trite sense in which we are all lucky or unlucky—that there were several branching points in his career at which he might easily have gone off in a direction other than the one he took." But then Medawar says: "Lucky or not, Watson was a highly privileged young man … [B]ecause it was unpremeditated we can count it to luck that Watson fell in with Francis Crick." In no other sense, however, is it lucky that Jim Dixon fell into an enviable bonding with Gore-Urquhart.

It may be stipulated that, finally, despite all similarities of plot, character, tone, and style, Lucky Jim is a novel (about fictional characters) and The Double Helix (about real people) is not. Thus the moral distinction that haunts the comparison of Watson and Pepys haunts the comparison of Watson and Amis as well. But academic readers of Lucky Jim in England perhaps know the original of all of Amis's characters. Even if this is not the case, the possibility can get us to wonder what Watson's book would have been considered if he had changed all the names, moved the setting to Oxford, and made the subject the search for a cure for cancer. Indeed, Crick is decoding just such a roman à clef within The Double Helix. The moral critics of The Double Helix (e.g., Lear) would argue, of course, that that is precisely what Watson did not do. Even if the book is perverse in every judgment, it cannot be taken as a novel.

But as it happens, the discreteness of the category "novel" was under assault just at the moment Watson was writing. Only one of Watson's reviewers seems to have noticed this; Bronowski writes: "I do not suppose The Double Helix will outsell Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but it is a more characteristic criticism and chronicle of our age, and young men will be fired by it when Perry Smith and Dick Hickock no longer interest even an analyst." We are reminded that the so-called nonfiction novel was a product of the decade that produced The Double Helix.

At first glance, it seems an attractive simplification merely to classify The Double Helix in this once fashionable subgenre. Insofar as Watson is a literary artist, some of his subtest technique has been devoted to the problem of making a memoir read as vividly as a diary, and giving a work that is supposed to have some of the inconsequence of a diary the suspense of a novel. The art of Norman Mailer's nonfiction novels, similarly but not identically, consists of making a diary read like a history, and submitting both diarist and history to a novelist's indecorous eye. Furthermore, the attraction of two founders of the nonfiction novel, Mailer and Tom Wolfe, to the space race may suggest that some of the impetus behind the nonfiction novel was the litterateur's desire to make peace with factuality in an era of scientific drama. To say so, of course, does not obviate the moral distinction between Amis and Watson; it merely shows that the distinction does not disqualify Watson from the society of novelists, as the society was defined in the sixties.

Even with the concept of the nonfiction novel, however, we have not found the proper classification of Watson's book. For though The Right Stuff and Of a Fire on the Moon are quite different—one about the goofy and human Mercury project, the other about the perfectionist and diabolic Apollo moonshot—in both cases there is a built-in antithesis of verbal, stylish nonfiction novelist and mute, mechanical NASA. If Mailer is antagonistic to his subject, it may be argued, Wolfe enjoys his and only wishes to match the vitality of Mercury with his own lively style. But even in Wolfe's case, the style cannot be considered in any sense borrowed from the project. In other words, there is something confrontational or at least competitive in the relationship of style and fact in the nonfiction novel from the literary end. There is not, however, anything confrontational in Watson's version of the relationship of science and literature, or of fact and style. Watson is a novelist in the era of the nonfiction novel, but his approach to the genre manifests a belief that science and literature relate to each other more intimately than any litterateur can conceive.

The first posited title of Watson's book was Honest Jim; the second, Bronowski tells us, was Base Pairs. At first glance, we seem to be shifting from a literary allusion to a scientific one: the key to the structure of DNA is the pairing of the chemical bases adenine with thymine, and guanine with cytosine, up all the steps of the DNA spiral staircase. But the title is a pun on the ignobleness of all human pairings in The Double Helix—which means that a literary trope gets us from the science of Watson and Crick's "A Structure of Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid" to the novel The Double Helix.

As everyone has noticed, The Double Helix primarily about four onstage characters, Watson, Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin, and one offstage character, Linus Pauling. What needs explicating is the way in which all the onstage characters bond into pairs. Watson more than the others seems to be the template looking for a complementary scientist to bond with. First, he is desirous of forming a bond with Maurice Wilkins—the one contumacious and intuitive, the other cautious and knowledgeable. He hopes to use his sister as if she were a hydrogen atom to connect with Wilkins; at this moment, Jim Watson is morally somewhere between Jim Dixon—whose love of the pretty Christine Callaghan only happens to allow him to bond with Gore-Urquhart—and the loathsome Bertrand, who wants to manipulate Christine ruthlessly and lovelessly for the same purpose.

At any rate, that particular pair, Watson and Wilkins, base enough if judged by Watson's motivation, does not work out. Wilkins is instead part of the least successful pair of all, with Rosalind Franklin.

Not that he was at all in love with Rosy, as we called her from a distance. Just the opposite—almost the moment she arrived in Maurice's lab, they began to upset each other. Maurice, a beginner in X-ray diffraction work, wanted some professional help and hoped that Rosy, a trained crystallographer, could speed up his research. Rosy, however, did not see the situation this way. She claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem and would not think of herself as Maurice's assistant.

Of course, Watson immediately interprets this situation on behalf of sexist politics. "I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities."

One might have thought that love would be the model of a successfully complementary pair, and that, therefore, the answer to the failure of Rosalind and Maurice would be a happy sexual partnership. But so far as the book lets us know, the pair Watson-Crick, as prettily welded as adenine and thymine, is not sexual at all. Yet the bond for all its lack of sexual force seems stronger than Crick's with his wife (who allows Crick to be interested in pretty girls for the sake of social amusement), or Watson's with anyone else except perhaps his sister.

One can search the three photographs of Watson and Crick in the Norton edition for clues to the hidden sexuality of the bond without, I think, finding any. In one, Crick, at the right and somehow elevated, points upward with some sort of instrument towards the DNA model; Watson, lower left, looks as nearly straight up as he can without tilting back his head. Between them, their DNA offspring grows to the ceiling. The temptation is to award Crick, by virtue of his superior position and raised instrument, the phallus; between them is the "secret of life" to which Watson, stimulated by Crick, has given birth. The DNA molecule is ready to split apart and begin a new life itself.

On the other hand, five pages later is the reverse photograph. Now Watson, his neck stretching to his strangely alien (as sci-fi uses the term) head, is on the right. He is well above and much bigger than Crick at lower left, looking up. And the symmetry of the two photographs is reproduced in the symmetry of the cover picture. Watson and Crick are standing on a street; Crick on the left is glancing off, as if eschewing publicity or lost in his discourse; Watson on the right smiles for the immortalizing camera. Between them is a quite noticeable and sharply defined empty space. All hands are behind backs or in pockets, as if Watson and Crick are oblivious to the convention that the proper mode of unifying such photographs is to drape arms around shoulders.

The fact is that Watson's model of a perfect sexual couple seems to include one submissive member, if his attitude towards Rosalind Franklin is any indication, as perhaps does Crick's, if the permissiveness of his wife is a clue. Which is to say that Watson and Crick, insofar as they are a successful scientific team, cannot function on the sexual model. Crick chides Watson for taking time off; Watson is disappointed that Crick does not respond to a brainstorm; both move in and out of the partnership with apparently equal independence. However, neither can solve the problem alone. Watson is quite frank about his need for Crick: "Several times I carried on alone for a half hour or so, but without Francis' reassuring chatter my inability to think in three dimensions became all too apparent."

The nature of their complementarity can be summarized as follows: Crick is voluble, Watson apparently rather inarticulate. Watson seems more facile with new ideas, Crick faster to see the consequences of Watson's ideas and what their shared discovery implies. Watson's worldly drives complement Crick's more purely intellectual aspirations. Even intellectually, Watson is more practical, Crick more theoretical. When Watson makes fun of muddled biologists who waste time "on useless polemics about the origin of life," he is mocking one of Crick's future preoccupations. The book's intermittent treatment of the complementary pair America-England is focused by the Watson-Crick team, though the issue is muted by the fact that Crick is himself a sort of enfant terrible, in some ways himself a Lucky Jim. Lucky Jim is the English hero most apt to appeal to an American reader; perhaps Crick's similar appeal explains Watson's bonding with him.

I am arguing that the idea of base pairs is, as Watson says, so "pretty" that it can function as the basis of not only Watson's science but of his novel as well. The prettiness of the scientific discovery is partly as follows: The strands of the DNA molecule spiral around each other. Between the spirals are the four bases, adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. Inward from one strand can come any of the four; but adenine (A) always joins with thymine (T) coming out of the other strand, thymine with adenine, guanine (G) with cytosine (C), cytosine with guanine. The point is that each base locks with only one other base, by means of hydrogen bonds. One of the benefits of the symmetry is that it explains the way the gene can break in half and duplicate itself. The two strands break apart, but every A attracts a complementary T, every T an A, every G a C, and every C a G, until a duplicate double helix is reformed.

And what is so lovely and moving about the novel is the way Watson and Crick come together, split apart, and by means of the novel unite again. Despite rumors that Crick was planning a lawsuit over the book, it is not too sentimental to assert that the book exists to recreate the Watson-Crick bond. In the section between the preface and chapter 1, Watson first tells the "Honest Jim" story, then adds a final introductory paragraph:

Later as I trudged upward [away from Willy Seeds, toward the restaurant], I thought again about our earlier meetings in London. Then DNA was still a mystery, up for grabs, and no one was sure who would get it and whether he would deserve it if it proved as exciting as we semisecretly believed. But now the race was over and, as one of the winners, I knew the tale was not simple and certainly not as the newspapers reported. Chiefly it was a matter of five people: Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, Linus Pauling, Francis Crick, and me. And as Francis was the dominant force in shaping my part, I will start the story with him.

Watson, egotist, phrases it thus: "Francis was the dominant force in shaping my part." Watson is, to give him the benefit of the doubt, conscious that the genesis of the story is parallel to the genesis of the DNA molecule: Crick was a template for the forming of his complement, Watson. Then Watson begins the story proper with the sentence: "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood." And by 1974, Crick, well beyond the sort of anger that could have caused legal action in 1968, sees the humor of his relationship with Watson and considers beginning his own memoir: "Jim was always clumsy with his hands. One had only to see him peel an orange." Watson's memoir recreates Crick who created him, and Crick's hypothesized memoir recreates Watson: each is destined to go on remanufacturing the other. Watson, in 1968, knows half of what he knows about base pairing from Kingsley Amis, half from the gene.

But it needs to be reiterated that, despite the genetic model, we are not considering sexual bonding: the attraction of A for T, and C for G, has nothing to do with animal magnetism. Following some of the steps of the discovery, we can see how oddly the base pairing is suggested by sexual pairing, and how oddly the suggestion is undermined. While working on the DNA model, Watson and Crick are both occasionally working on other things. Watson becomes interested in the sexuality of bacteria, and stays with it in the face of his disappointment that "the discovery that bacteria were divided into male and female sexes amused but did not arouse [Crick]." Crick is in fact unhappy that Watson is distracted from DNA; nevertheless, the diversion seems to pay off, for around the same time (though curiously just after being nearly assaulted by Rosalind Franklin, an event that creates a new bond with Wilkins), Watson once and for all decides to give up the transatlantic pursuit of a three-strand DNA molecule. "Thus by the time I had cycled back to college and climbed over the back gate, I had decided to build two-chain models. Francis would have to agree. Even though he was a physicist, he knew that important biological objects come in pairs."

The unavoidable inference is that Watson has the unexpected heterosexuality of bacteria in mind—even though returning from hopeless Rosy and Maurice to Francis. At any rate, following a digression on the subject of Bertrand Fourcade, "the most beautiful male, if not person, in Cambridge," Watson excitedly passes on to Crick his inspiration about paired biological objects. "Francis, however, drew the line against accepting my assertion that the repeated finding of twoness in biological systems told us to build two-chain models." This is the second time that Crick is "not aroused" by an enthusiasm of Watson's. But Watson goes on to build double helices anyway, which are eventually justified by the base pairing. On the one hand, then, the sexual metaphor has its role in leading to the double helix, but on the other hand it is never taken very seriously. When Watson says that "important biological objects come in pairs," he would have to be thinking less of such pairs as Wilkins-Franklin, and more of such pairs as Watson-Crick. During Watson's digression on the subject of Bertrand Fourcade's asexual or transsexual beauty—he is, with Watson's sister, about the only thing in the book more attractive than a DNA molecule—he mentions "Bertrand s perfectly' proportioned face." On Bertrand's asexual or transsexual face, Watson implies, are paired biological organs in perfect asexual symmetry and mutual adjustment.

By two males a child is born—the DNA model, which contains the "secret of life" and exhibits its capacity for dividing into what are always called "daughter" DNA molecules. The reader who is looking for a novelistic taxonomy will inevitably think of another male chemist who discovers the "secret," the "principle of life," by ignoring "the tranquillity of his domestic affections" and building a contraption.

Yet what Frankenstein gives us is not an analogue but a perfect contrast: pretty model, ugly monster; comic triumph, catastrophe. This is not the moment for a full explication of Mary Shelley's novel, but perhaps Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar can help us quickly to seize the essential distinction. What Gilbert and Gubar show in The Madwoman in the Attic is that Frankenstein is not, in fact, about the masculine creation of life: "Though it has been disguised, buried, or miniaturized, femaleness—the gender definition of mothers and daughters, orphans and beggars, monsters and false creators—is at the heart of this apparently masculine book." Mothers and daughters, monsters and false creators—Frankenstein and his monster are both women. Thus the birth scene (in which Frankenstein first of all discovers that he is not Adam but Eve) enacts "Eve's discovery not that she must fall but that, having been created female, she is fallen, femaleness and fallenness being essentially synonymous." Frankenstein is "a Coleridgean and Miltonic nightmare of filthy creation" and "filthy femaleness."

Conversely, if there is one thing The Double Helix does not have, it is any sense of sin. Further, the lab in which Watson and Crick work is relatively sanitized—they build up their model as if with tinker toys—and all they give birth to is an idea of a pretty molecule that can split into equally pretty twin daughters. The contrast, then, is as follows: Frankenstein appears to be about a man giving birth to a male monster, but is really about a woman giving birth to a female monster. The Double Helix seems to be about men giving birth to the gene that splits into daughters, but really is about the asexual creation of a model of asexual genes that can split into more asexual genes. The opposition can be put more neatly: Frankenstein is a novel by a woman that appears to be about asexual birth, but sex is omnipresent and dirty; The Double Helix is by a sexist man with sex on his mind, but sex is eliminate from the central plot, and all is cleanliness.

Evelyn Fox Keller has written about scientists as if they were all Watsons: in her essay. "Gender and Science," she explores the popular conception that scientists are paradoxically both masculine and asexual, and finds evidence that it is true and reasons why it might be. (Lwoff's summary of Watson—"cold logic, hypersensitivity, lack of affectivity"—recalls Keller's language.) My only point here is that from the idea that the prettiest symmetries in the world are masculine and asexual (quasi-sexual, let us say), from Bertrand Fourcade's face to Watson-Crick, Watson found the inspiration for both his DNA model and his novel. Base pairing is thus the local connection of science and literature; but Watson's use of the concept is so comprehensive that it can unite science and literature in general, with the surprising result that a literary triumph after a scientific one does not represent a feminization.

When Watson's nonfiction novel was finally published, it was modestly called The Double Helix; the metamorphosis we have observed is from literary title (Honest Jim), to scientific-literary title (Base Pairs), to scientific title. The decision to give what turned out to be a literary "classic" a scientific name may be a sign of insecurities such as Keller might diagnose—a retreat to entrenched masculinity. The oddity, however, is that Watson should have tried something literary in the first place, if literature is more sexy but less masculine than science. But the oddity is eliminated if science and literature can be considered in terms of the same base-pair model as genes and friendships. (Base would take on a third meaning in expanding its territory in this way: from "base" as the opposite of acid, to "base" as a term of opprobrium, to "base" as the foundation of a structure.) In a Baconian esthetic, literature can be the basis of a masculine intellectual conquest as well as science: science and literature can bond in complementary masculinity. If this is so, perhaps we can eke a pun out of the apparently untroping, apparently scientific title to justify the union of troping and science: the double he-lix.

Keller argues that science is presumed to be masculine because it is presumed to be objective; the desire for objectivity, she thinks, grows from the destruction of the child's unity with the mother, on which all identity depends but, in addition, on which only the male's gender identity (culturally defined, at least in part) depends. But love, Keller tells us, relies on the trespassing of strict subject-object divisions. Whatever its origin, the cultural stereotype of the masculine scientist exists, and is predictably registered in Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon, in which WASP science-technology and Mailer compete for the love of the virgin moon; Mailer wins.

That the stereotype exists not only among the general public but also among scientists and litterateurs is not surprising. What is more surprising is the role sex plays in intellectual history, the interdisciplinary impulse of which might have been expected to undermine patterns of domination among the disciplines. In classical intellectual history, however, such as Lovejoy's or Nicolson's, philosophy and science, respectively, play the masculine role and literature always the female role, at least insofar as literature is fertilized by science/philosophy, and never the reverse. Lovejoy says that philosophy is the "seed-plot" of intellectual history; in Nicolson or Popper it is science, but I believe the implicit metaphor is the same. No wonder that Foucault, in decrying intellectual history of the Lovejoy-Nicolson variety, in asserting that the boundaries of disciplines may be ignored when one demarcates archaeological territories, will write an introduction to a book by a hermaphrodite, saying the same things about sexual divisions that he had said about disciplinary ones. If Lovejoy's project is heterosexual and interdisciplinary, then Foucault's is antisexual, in the sense that he does not take the boundary between sexes to be impermeable, and antidisciplinary.

And Watson's is quasi-sexual and quasi-disciplinary: just as The Double Helix seems more erotic than it is, the boundary between disciplines look more formidable than it is. Watson's book itself is a quasi-disciplinary intellectual history, in which fifties science bonds with fifties literature; the resultant nonfiction novel finds a comfortable home in the 1960s, a decade in which disciplinary frontiers were being crossed in many directions. It is not that science of the fifties fecundates literature of the sixties; literature and science are complimentary and templates for each other.

First of all, it is easy to show that The Double Helix, as a work of literature, requires the Watson and Crick papers that the Norton edition provides as a context. As Lwoff rightly says, "the most thrilling page of [Watson's] book" contains the following two sentences: "Suddenly I became aware that an adenine-thymine pair held together by two hydrogen bonds was identical in shape to a guaninecytosine pair held together by at least two hydrogen bonds. All the hydrogen bonds seemed to form naturally; no fudging was required to make the two types of base pairs identical in shape." This is, however, only thrilling if one has read the semitechnical introduction by Stent, or the papers at the end of the book first, or the book once before. The word "suddenly," which seems designed to signal a breakthrough to the nonscientific reader, had been misleading to the nonscientific reader only a few pages back: "Suddenly I realized the potentially profound implications of a DNA structure in which the adenine residue formed hydrogen bonds similar to those found in crystals of pure adenine. If DNA was like this, each adenine residue would form two hydrogen bonds to an adenine residue related to it by a 180-degree rotation." But this is the beginning of a scheme of like-with-like pairing (A-A, for example, not A-T), and it is wrong. The literature is dependent at its very center on the complementary science.

Less obviously, but just as profoundly, the DNA scientific papers may be considered as a sort of template for the manufacture of this novel. They also have an insufficiency impossible to rectify within disciplinary bounds, or rather two: they lack human life, and they lack sufficient style.

As for life: one senses, reading the papers, that a remarkable claim is being constantly suppressed. The first paper (25 April 1953) contains the famous isolated sentence: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." That intimation in the April paper generates the paper of 30 May 1953. But the sequel also has lacunae: "Our model suggests possible explanations for a number of other phenomena. For example, spontaneous mutation may be due to a base occasionally occurring in one of its less likely tautomeric forms. Again, the pairing between homologous chromosomes at meiosis may depend on pairing between specific bases. We shall discuss these ideas in detail elsewhere." Inevitably, a mortise in one paper finds a tenon in the next; always the scientific claims grow, but extended to their grandiose conclusion, they surpass the ability of science to demonstrate them.

In fact, these ultimate claims were being made before the DNA papers were written, before even Watson was ready for them: during the interim between the final theory and the building of the final model, Watson is "slightly queasy when at lunch Francis winged into the Eagle to tell everyone within hearing distance that we had found the secret of life." From Frankenstein to Francis. Nevertheless, despite his temporary nervousness, Watson had agreed all along that "to understand what life is, we must know how genes act." The reader may at first assume that the scientists must mean something very limited by "life." But Watson is not modest: if genes are composed of DNA—such is the original premise—then "DNA would have to provide the key to enable us to find out how the genes determined, among other characteristics, the color of our hair, our eyes, most likely our comparative intelligence, and maybe even our potential to amuse others." Our potential to amuse others? Watson's DNA investigation pursues the secret of Lucky Jim. Certainly no paper Watson and Crick wrote on the DNA molecule comes close to explaining how DNA made Lucky Jim an amusing book. So the scientific papers call for, and are a template for the creation of, The Double Helix, itself a very amusing book. And much of the amusement is in the baseness of the base pairing: the novel is necessary to show how the DNA model does in a fashion give us the secret of Amis's wit.

Style is the second desideratum that the literature fulfills for the science. Watson is painfully conscious of stylistic questions—in fact, his ambitions are essentially concerned with such questions. For in the arsenal of the redoubtable enemy, Linus Pauling, style is as deadly a weapon as content.

By the time I was back in Copenhagen, the journal containing Linus' article had arrived from the States. I quickly read it and immediately reread it. Most of the language was above me, and so I could only get a general impression of his argument. I had no way of judging whether it made sense. The only thing I was sure of was that it was written with style. A few days later the next issue of the journal arrived, this time containing seven more Pauling articles. Again the language was full of rhetorical tricks. One article started with the phrase, "Collagen is a very interesting protein." It inspired me to compose opening lines of the paper I would write about DNA, if I solved its structure. A sentence like "Genes are interesting to geneticists" would distinguish my way of thought from Pauling's.

When Watson does in fact solve the structure, he remembers his stylistic intention. The first article (25 April 1953) begins: "We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest." The coy understatement of the Pauling sentence on collagen is somewhat ineptly imitated—a lack of faith in understatement is manifested by the too impressive adjective "considerable"—but the attempt is still evident. Watson's point, however, had been to distinguish his style from Pauling's, not mimic it, and in this I believe he failed. What is the stylistic distinction implicit in Watson's never-used sentence "Genes are interesting to geneticists"? First of all, the literariness of the statement is more pronounced than Pauling's, by virtue of its symmetry—its complementary doubling. But the sentence is not merely symmetrical; it is tautological. And in the tautology, I think, is a real clue to Watson's style. If I am right, what the tautology suggests is this: genes are only interesting to geneticists—by definition—but DNA is important to everyone by virtue of its intrinsic explanatory force. The translation from genes to DNA is from effects to causes; from the beginning Watson had sided with those who thought that the behavior of the gene could not be understood by "purely genetic tricks," and so had learned as much chemistry as the case required. What is understated in "genes are interesting to geneticists," in the nice symmetry, is not merely the grandeur of Watson's anticipated discovery, but also self-promotion at the expense of less adaptive scientists.

The novel, then, is required to satisfy the stylistic demands that Watson had hoped to satisfy in his scientific papers, but did not. Interestingly enough, the whole question of the importance of the scientific style of the DNA science came up immediately in the aftermath of the publication of The Double Helix. Medawar is on the side of its importance:

The great thing about the discovery was its completeness, its air of finality. If Watson and Crick had been seen groping toward an answer; if they had published a partly right solution and had been obliged to follow it up with corrections and glosses, some of them made by other people; if the solution had come out piecemeal instead of in a blaze of understanding; then it would still have been a great episode in biological history but something more in the common run of things; something splendidly well done, but not done in the grand romantic manner.

To this Crick (not Watson) replies:

There is [an argument] recently proposed by Gunther Stent and supported by such a sophisticated thinker as Medawar. This is that if Watson and I had not discovered the structure, instead of being revealed with a flourish it would have trickled out and that its impact would have been far less. For this sort of reason Stent had argued that a scientific discovery is more akin to a work of art than is generally admitted. Style, he argues, is as important as content.

I am not completely convinced by this argument, at least in this case. Rather than believe that Watson and Crick made the DNA structure, I would rather stress that the structure made Watson and Crick … [W]hat I think is overlooked in such arguments is the intrinsic beauty of the DNA double helix. It is the molecule which has style, quite as much as the scientists.

But Watson's style—expressed in the nice, cruel, complementary doubling of "genes" and "geneticists"—demanded expression before the stylish double helix was discovered. What The Double Helix seeks to propose, if I have built the correct model of its structure, is that base pairing is so deeply a function of Watson's mind that the pretty DNA followed from Watson as much as Watson from the pretty DNA. If this is the case, the title The Double Helix refers not only to the DNA molecule but also to the style and form of the book. Style, in Mailer's and Wolfe's "scientific" nonfiction novels, is put up against science. But style, in Watson's book, is both cause and effect of the science.

In creating a more truly transgeneric literature than Mailer's or Wolfe's (call The Double Helix a factual novel rather than a nonfiction novel, since its basis is not the subtraction of fictionality), Watson implicitly proposes a quasi-disciplinary model for intellectual history at least as interesting as Lovejoy's interdisciplinary and Foucault's antidisciplinary histories of ideas. According to Watson, literature and science are both incomplete, even if literature is factual and science is pretty, and are thus templates for the manufacture of each other. Only in these terms can The Double Helix be considered literature at all; though, in these terms it can join the canon.


John Limon, " The Double Helix as Literature," in Raritan, Vol. 5, No. 3, Winter 1986, pp. 26-47.

Sources, (November 20, 2000).

Bronowski, J., Review, in Nation, March 18, 1968, pp. 381-382.

Fremont-Smith, Elliot, Review, in New York Times, February 19, 1968.

Medawar, P. B., Review, in New York Review of Books, March 28, 1968, pp. 3-5.

Sinsheimer, Robert L., " The Double Helix (1968)," in Science and Engineering, September 1968, pp. 4-6.

U.S. News Online: Double-Teaming the Double Helix, (August 17, 1998).

Watson, James D., The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Norton Critical Edition, edited by Gunther S. Stent, W. W. Norton and Company, 1980.

———, "The Double Helix Revisited,",,3266,48104,00.html (July 3, 2000).

Further Reading

Bishop, Jerry E., and Michael Waldholz, Genome: The Story of the Most Astonishing Scientific Adventure of Our Time? The Attempt to Map All the Genes in the Human Body, Simon and Schuster, 1990.

This book highlights the major events leading up to the expansion of the fields of genetics and biotechnology. Its style is very accessible and includes examples of both personal and professional challenges faced during scientific research.

Marinacci, Barbara, ed., Linus Pauling in His Own Words: Selected Writings, Speeches, and Interviews, Touchstone Books, 1995.

Though this book may appeal more to the serious student of science, it is still a kind of memoir by James Watson's most formidable competitor in the search for the structure of DNA. Not as controversial as Watson's book, Pauling's collection provides a good balance in discussing research in DNA and many other areas of science.

Watson, James D., and John Tooze, The DNA Story: A Documentary History of Gene Cloning, W. H. Freeman, 1981.

This is an interesting look at the history of gene cloning, told through a variety of media—from scientific papers and correspondence to newspaper articles and cartoons.

Watson, James D., and others, Recombinant DNA, Scientific American Books, 1992.