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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1874

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.’’

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...

(This entire section contains 1874 words.)

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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 Xray 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 Xray 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.

Rosy 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.




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