Study Guide

The Double Helix

by James D. Watson

The Double Helix Summary


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....

(The entire section is 1150 words.)