The Turn of the Screw: James Watson on The Double Helix and his changing view of Rosalind Franklin

An interview with the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

Dr. James D. Watson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

The Double Helix is a famous book. It's also an infamous one. Written by James Watson in 1968, it tells the story of how he and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA. The catch is that Watson chose to write that story in what was, at the time, a damn-near unprecedented way. He didn't write a history. He didn't exactly write an autobiography, either. Instead, The Double Helix is a book about history, told in story form, where everything is seen through the eyes of a single narrator — the 25-year-old James Watson.

He is not the world's most likable narrator. Nor the most reliable one. I mean that in the sense of the "unreliable narrator" from fiction. We see this world through young Watson's eyes, and his perspective isn't always accurate. The story is shaped by his prejudices and his personality, and it can't really be read as THE account of what actually happened. That's a good thing, because the choice of style allowed Watson to really capture the back-room conflict (and cooperation), and the sense of urgency, that drives scientific discovery. It's a bad thing because it's far too easy to forget that The Double Helix has more in common with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood than, say, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It's not a scholarly history. It's more like memoir crossed with narrative non-fiction. You can't walk away from it thinking that Watson's narration represents some kind of objective truth.

The new, annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helix — published this month by Simon and Schuster — makes that fact abundantly clear. Full of photographs, letters, handwritten notes, and commentary from other people involved in the history of DNA, this edition gives you glimpses of other perspectives — of a story much bigger than the one told in The Double Helix, itself.

It also made me wonder about James Watson's reaction to documents that completely upend the story as he told it — especially documents relating to Rosalind Franklin, a scientist whose work was instrumental in deciphering DNA's structure and who is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature.

So I asked him about it.

I should clarify that I wasn't able to talk to James Watson by phone. This interview was done via email, and that's not my favorite way to work. With email (and you'll see this) it's far too easy to end up with one-sentence answers to complicated questions. Worse, there's no opportunity for follow-ups. But I do appreciate the Watson took the time to write some good answers to my questions about Franklin, and I wanted to share those with you.

First, though, a little background. Rosalind Franklin was a biophysicist who worked primarily with x-ray crystallography, a method of determining the shape and structure of things that we can't see with our own eyes. Imagine that you have captured Wonder Woman's invisible airplane. You can't see it. But you know it's there because when you throw a rubber ball at the space, the ball bounces back to you. If you could throw enough rubber balls, from all different sides, and measure their trajectory and speed as they bounced back, you could probably get a pretty good idea of the shape of the plane.

That's basically what x-ray crystallography does. You shoot x-rays at a crystalline structure, like a molecule of DNA. Those beams hit the molecule and bounce off and you use the patterns of diffraction to learn something about the molecule's shape.

In the early 1950s, James Watson and Francis Crick were attempting to figure out the structure of DNA, but they weren't the only ones. In fact, Crick had avoided getting involved with DNA for several years because his friend, Maurice Wilkins, was also studying it. This is where Franklin comes in.

In 1950, the head of Wilkins department hired Rosalind Franklin. Wilkins — and his friends Crick and Watson — were under the impression that Franklin was supposed to be Wilkins' assistant. But she didn't act like his assistant. She acted like his colleague or, perhaps, his competitor. And that disconnect between who Wilkins thought Franklin was supposed to be and who she thought she was created a really shitty working environment. Wilkins was angry at Franklin, and his anger seems to have rubbed off on how his friends perceived her. Mix that with a little sexism and you get some of The Double Helix's most controversial parts. Here's an excerpt from James Watson's initial description of Franklin:

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. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. 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. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men.

It goes without saying that Watson was not particularly concerned with the fashion choices of his male colleagues. Likewise, the nickname "Rosy" isn't one that Franklin ever used. It was bestowed on her, and really only behind her back. Throughout The Double Helix, Watson refers to her as Rosy, even while calling other people by their formal last names. Or, at least, by names they would have called themselves.

But one of the interesting things this edition of The Double Helix does is shine some light on the initial conflict. On the page opposite the description I quoted above, you can see a photocopy of a letter, sent to Franklin by the department head, where he basically tells her that she's been hired to lead the DNA project — not to work for Maurice Wilkins.

Basically, Franklin was right in thinking that she wasn't Wilkins' assistant.

Reading Watson's perspective alongside the letter and a footnote explaining how Wilkins saw the situation, it becomes clear that one of the most famous conflicts in the history of science started because the department head wasn't communicating very well with either Franklin or Wilkins. In this reading, Watson kind of becomes the catty best friend, attacking somebody his pal was angry with even though he didn't know all the details of what was going on. It's Facebook drama in the laboratory.

And that brings me to the questions I asked Watson.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: I very much enjoyed this edition of the book, and the fact that it contained all these documents that provided some contrasting viewpoints and added to the depth of your perspective. And it seems like, in some cases, you'd originally written the book without having seen certain documents that end up significantly changing the story. In particular, I'm thinking of the letter from John Randall to Rosalind Franklin showing that she was right in thinking she hadn't been hired to be Maurice Wilkins' assistant, but rather his colleague. I'm curious about when you finally found out about that letter and what you thought about it. Did it change your perspective on the conflicts between Wilkins and Franklin?

James Watson: The Randall letter was discussed in Brenda Maddox’s biography of Franklin [in 2003] and that’s probably where I first became aware of it. But in this edition, Alex and Jan reproduce the whole letter – one of the pleasures of this edition is the number of letters and other documents they reproduce as facsimiles. Its fun to see letters just as their recipients saw them.

This letter makes me think even more what a tragic situation Wilkins and Franklin found themselves in. Wilkins had begun the DNA work at King’s and had it taken away from him and given to Franklin, without understanding why–that Randall had made the arrangements described in this letter. The situation would have been intolerable for anyone, let alone two such incompatible characters as Wilkins and Franklin.

MKB: I'd like to ask you a question about your treatment of Franklin, given that it's one of the things The Double Helix is rather famous for. Or, perhaps, infamous. You set out to write a book that captured your thoughts and feelings and viewpoint as a young man, in this specific time period, in an often-contentious working environment. But I'm curious about how your perspective on those events has changed over time. If you were to sit down and write about the events in this book now, not through your at-the-time perspective, but as you think about the past today, would it change the way that you portrayed Dr. Franklin? How has the way you think about her changed as you've gotten older?

JW: We didn’t know Franklin well–I only met her perhaps three times and Francis once in this period. So, my view of her was inevitably colored by our friendship with Wilkins and what he told us about her.

I am not an historian and wouldn’t want to write the book you describe. But if I were to do so, I would, of course, refer to the Randall letter and show how it set up the misunderstanding. I would write more sympathetically about the plight of both Wilkins and Franklin. I would also be able to write about her views of life at King’s College, including her dislike of her colleagues, in particular Maurice. This is made vivid in her correspondence, especially in one letter reproduced in the book.

In this new edition, I notice that Ray [Gosling - her student] has rather a good line in response to my comments about her appearance. He notes that I never saw her dressed up to go out in the evening, and that she had an elegance that I probably never saw.

I mentioned that Francis and I hardly knew Franklin at this time. Later, of course, we both saw more of her, as she was very much part of the elite structural biology community – her excellent work on TMV ensured that (though is often over-looked in popular accounts of her life). [He's referring to her work with tobacco mosaic virus, which she spent the last few years of her life studying. TMV was the first virus ever discovered and Franklin's work was instrumental in our understanding of RNA viruses. Franklin died in 1958 from ovarian cancer. — MKB]

************************


Rosalind Franklin's Photo 51, an x-ray crystallography image of DNA.

There's a bit more to the Franklin-Watson/Crick story than just office squabbling. One of the most controversial points concerns a particular x-ray crystallography image that she took, which was shown to Watson without Franklin's knowledge or permission. That image ended up playing an important role in Watson's and Crick's ability to figure out the structure of DNA. But this edition of the book — and Watson's answers — provide a deeper view of what was going on in the background — how a personality conflict and bad management led to a much bigger controversy that people are still arguing about today.

I asked James Watson three other questions about the book, as well. His answers to these were less substantive, but you can read them below. In general, I'd definitely recommend this edition of The Double Helix. If you're going to read the book, this is the way it ought to be read. As James Watson's limited view of his own life, it's interesting. But the history really comes alive when you can see more of what everybody around him was thinking, as well. Among the gems: three pages of Francis Crick's six-page letter urging Watson to not publish The Double Helix, to begin with.

************************

MKB: I'm curious about what got you interested in writing a book like The Double Helix to begin with. At the time, it was far out of the norm for the way that scientists wrote about science and, in fact, it was fairly far out of the norm for the way anyone wrote about anything. Narrative non-fiction was still a developing field, even from the perspective of journalists. What influenced your desire to write a story this way and what did you look to for inspiration?

James Watson: The story was too good not to be told as it actually happened!

MKB: One of the things that stands out to me in the book is your frustration with stuffy and bureaucratic social expectations within the scientific community. In particular, I'm thinking about some of the early chapters, where you talk about Francis Crick being unable to study DNA because Maurice Wilkins already was and it would have been poor form for another English scientist to try and "scoop" him, as it were. How have you seen this aspect of science change in the years since you wrote The Double Helix? Have some of those formalities fallen away? What are the new social twists you see young scientists having to navigate?

JW: Friendships almost have to evaporate when a scientist chooses unilaterally to work toward a scientific objective also pursued by a friend.

MKB: I was really struck by your description of Linus Pauling and the way he announced his findings in theatrical lectures. It reminded me a bit of some of the more theatrical, hyped-up scientific pronouncements of recent years, especially the now-discredited findings like arsenic life and faster-than-light neutrinos. In the wake of those events, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how this was so outside the norm for scientists, but it doesn't seem much different from Pauling's tactics. It's just that he was usually right. I'm curious about your thoughts on this. Do you see more theatrics in science today? How do you think the increased media spotlight has influenced the way scientists announce their work to the public? And how do you see your role in that, given the fact that The Double Helix was a major part of popularizing science and making it something more breathless and story-driven?

JW: I find theatrical performances even rarer than when Pauling lived. Almost no one now risks offending pompous individuals in the audience who later might review either their research articles or judge their applications for research money. Today’s science stifles individuality.

• The annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helix by James Watson is available in hardcover, Kindle, and eBook.

Published 7:57 am Thu, Nov 8, 2012

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

30 Responses to “The Turn of the Screw: James Watson on The Double Helix and his changing view of Rosalind Franklin”

  1. calvinav says:

    Nice interview, good to get more information about this very intriguing part of scientific history.

  2. Snig says:

    Interesting.  In my senior year as a biology major, we read “the double helix”, along with a Franklin biography that refuted many “facts” of the former.  Watson oddly started his book with an anecdote of chance meeting with a colleague who commented archly “How’s honest Jim” and then avoiding further conversation.  I’ve also wondered if Franklin’s cancer was caused by radiation/chemical exposure, as researchers back then had less protective measures. 

    • That “honest Jim” bit is one of the places where you start to suspect that Watson wasn’t very good at noticing when he wasn’t liked. Another is where he talks about meeting Maurice Wilkins for the first time. The annotated version then includes this delightful detail from Wilkins’ perspective: “Wilkins told Gosling about Watson (describing him as a gangly young American). He instructed Gosling that if Watson showed up at King’s Gosling was to say that Wilkins had ‘left the country’.” LOL

      • Jonathan Badger says:

        It’s also worth remembering that Franklin remained quite a good friend of Francis Crick and his wife, even staying with them while she was undergoing treatment for her cancer. So maybe it was Watson who was the problem there.

        • Snig says:

          Crick (i can’t find the quote), supposedly said that the original book was “a pack of lies”, but I may be misremembering. Watson has been quite overt in sexism over the years, so he certainly has some issues. I’m hoping that his recent memoir reflects recognition of this and growth.

    • ocker3 says:

       Curie and Franklin, two great female scientists who gave their lives to science. Not just their natural span of years, their lives.

  3. Lexicat says:

    Bravo, Maggie. I recently listened to LA Theatre Works’ production of Photograph 51, a theatrical montage concerning Dr. Franklin’s work and relationships with the people you write about here. It’s compassionate, funny and poignant. And you might enjoy:  http://latw.nfshost.com/wp2/?p=263

    Also, this play is part of LATW’s Relativity Series, which are plays about science, math and society, and there are some real gems in there (including Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia):  http://latw.nfshost.com/wp2/

  4. Adam Bowie says:

    If you can find it somewhere, I’d heartily recommend “Life Story”, a TV movie from 1987 starring Jeff Goldblum as Watson and Juliet Stevenson as Franklin. I think it pretty fairly captures what was happening at the time, remembering when it was made in relation to more recent books. It covers the same ground, dramatising in quite a compelling way.

    • Jonathan Badger says:

      Yes, I’d second that. Plus I liked the use of Delerue’s “The Grand Choral” (more recently used in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”) on the soundtrack. And you get to see Goldblum play basically the same character he later played in “Independence Day” and “Jurassic Park” — so maybe where he got typecast.

    • Bemopolis says:

      It’s also commonly found under the title “The Race For The Double Helix”.  It is quite fantastic, especially if you see it soon after reading Watson’s book, so you can really enjoy Stevenson’s Franklin dealing with his sexist crap.

  5. So after all that, the question, as it was posed, is essentially not answered (although the true question, I suspect, will never be asked).

    I read Brenda Maddox’s 2003 book and came away with the distinct impression that the few moments that the scientists had had access to that X-ray photograph of Franklin’s were not just instrumental but formative to the work that Watson and Crick undertook in the hours, days and weeks after. 

    Yes, I could be wrong, but I don’t think that I am. There is nothing to suggest that Franklin, had she returned to the laboratory and continued her work, wouldn’t herself have eventually realized the importance of that X-ray photograph. She was scooped, and not in a very generous light, either.

  6. crankypage says:

    It is unfortunate that you did not ask him about his views on race. They’re… intriguing.

  7. silkox says:

    I’ve always felt that, because the discovery of the structure of DNA was such a monumentally epic part of the history of science, it required the sacrifice of a virgin. Reading between the lines of Maddox’s excellent biography, I got the feeling she had similar thoughts.

  8. crankypage says:

    I’m teasing. The race controversy is likely why he would only do an interview in email format these days. If you’d gone there he (or likely, his transcribing secretary) would have stopped replying. 

    Watson is such a lost opportunity for the US to have a real national “science dean.” He’s entertaining enough that he could have been a wonderful public ambassador for molecular biology, except his personality is so deeply flawed as not to allow it.

  9. I lived in a building named after the chap once.

    For anyone interested…

  10. eplum says:

     Thanks for the interesting post.  

    However, Franklin did not actually do x-ray crystallography of DNA.  Unlike globular proteins or t-RNA, polymeric nucleic acids cannot be induced to form single crystals suitable for x-ray analysis.  Instead, at that time they were limited to analyzing the x-ray diffraction patterns from nucleic acid fibers.  The samples were prepared by drawing fibers from highly concentrated, viscous gels prepared by alcohol precipitation of the DNA from aqueous solution. In the resulting fibers, the DNA molecules line up in parallel in quasi-crystalline arrays. From the patterns of x-rays diffracted by these fibers, the primary structural motif of DNA was discerned.

    The modern ability to chemically synthesize short DNA molecules (oligodeoxyribonucleotides) of high purity has made x-ray crystallography of DNA possible.  In this case, the structures DNA and many DNA-protein and DNA-drug complexes can be determined at atomic resolution.

  11. glen_glenn says:

    Here’s a brief online exhibit regarding the publishing of the Double Helix: http://library.cshl.edu/naturalbestseller/

    FYI — All of the Watson and Crick papers (owned by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Wellcome Trust, respectively) are being digitized as we speak, and will be made available online next year. 

  12. Greg Tulonen says:

    Someone needs to post a link to Kate Beaton’s wonderful Rosalind Franklin comic, and I guess today, that someone is me:  http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=240

  13. My own father Gerald Elliott went to King’s as a grad student in the biophysics unit in 1953, sharing a lab with Ray Gosling, and thus knew many of the protagonists in the events. He would, I think, concur with the view that unit boss JT Randall (who was my dad’s PhD supervisor) was the true ‘author’ of much of what followed by his unfortunate treatment of Wilkins and Franklin.

    Rosalind Franklin has become such a symbolic figure that it is now hard to separate facts from myths. However, in the rush to see Franklin as wronged, it needs to be recalled that Wilkins was a senior independent scientist, had laid a lot of groundwork for the DNA work, and had obtained the actual DNA samples Franklin went on to take x-ray pictures of. All this was then essentially taken off him by the unit head (Randall) and given to Franklin. So it could be argued with a good deal of justification that the DNA project at King’s was very much Wilkins’ baby, and would not have existed for Franklin to take forward without years of Wilkins’ groundwork. 

    As my dad has often expressed, the general view in structural biology later on was that the DNA structure had four ‘parents’ – Crick, Watson, Franklin and WIlkins (although some people would also argue for adding Erwin Chargaff, whose base ratios A=T and G=C provided a vital clue). Of the four, the general view was that the Cambridge duo deserved the most credit, as they were the ones who correctly deduced the structure. Franklin did not get the credit she deserved at the time, and was dead by the time the Nobel was awarded. But the kind of received popular view that Wilkins was a usurper of credit due to Franklin seems to me to be a distortion, and at odds with the recollections of those who were there.

    I discuss some of this in a blogpost over here, written a few years ago and triggered by reports of the discovery of some of Crick and Wilkins’ old correspondence, which I guess is featured in the new edition of The Double Helix.

    Austin Elliott

  14. The problem is longevity. In the olden times people would die before becoming famous. Now they live longer, forget the past and create confusion. Michael Lerman, M.D., Ph.D.

  15. Massgenomics says:

    Great article! I recently reread and reviewed Double Helix on my blog; all controversies aside, it’s a book that really gives a frank picture of how cutting-edge science was done at the time, and I think anyone working in genetics or genomics should read it.

  16. David Shanahan says:

    To be fair, the epilogue to the original edition of TDH goes to considerable lengths to make amends for earlier comments about Franklin — e.g. “Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements. [A summary follows of her "superb" work at King's on DNA structure and later at Bernal's lab on TMV] … Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis, to whom she frequently came to for advice when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realising 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. Rosalind’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death.”

    Given all the fuss people have made about Crick and Watson’s treatment of Franklin over the years as recounted in TDH I often wonder if anyone actually read the epilogue!

  17. penguinchris says:

    Thanks for this, Maggie, I love reading about stuff like this but know mostly the history of my own field (and some others, just not biology beyond Darwin really). I knew the basics of this story, but this writeup and interview piqued my interest quite a bit with intriguing details I wasn’t aware of. I’ll have to read the book. 

  18. kattrby says:

    I am glad that David Shanahan has reminded us all of the epilogue. That has always stuck in my mind, too, from first reading the book; few books have such an important volte face at the end, but it is all the better for being a volte face.  Watson was, when breathlessly setting down what he had been a part of, a callow young man, and very much a callow young man of that time, in that place.  The epilogue – plainly tinged with guilt – is that same person trying to grow up a bit.

    To revise the text would be a complete nonsense – however wrong-headed he may then have been, forcing him into some kind of sanitised recantation now would be deeply silly, and a bad betrayal of the real history, which does include his wrong-headedness.  Annotation is by far the best solution, not least because it shows up so many other kinds of wrong-headedness, in so many other people. 

  19. Preston Sturges says:

    Wasn’t Linus Pauling generally considered the odds-on favorite to win this race?  He was an ardent x-ray crytallographer, but wasn’t he convinced that it was a triple helix?  

    Not everyone even believed that DNA was the genetic material and more than a scaffold. 

    Merely figuring out that is was a duplex was not very important – the crucial  insight was that the strands are antiparallel and complementary, which makes the extremely mysterious replication mechanism obvious.   THAT was the real question – if DNA was important, how could so much of it replicate during the time of a cell cycle, and how could it contain enough complexity to make “genes?”

    That is why they got the Nobel Prize for a ONE PAGE paper that ended on a wry observation about the implications for DNA replication and left the rest to the reader’s imagination.

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