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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

James D. Watson’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA is the author’s own account of perhaps the greatest biological breakthrough of the twentieth century. Watson describes key events and people that contributed the missing pieces to the puzzle of DNA structure. The book also is a study in human nature and the methods of science, as the author candidly examines the characters of the people with whom he worked and competed during the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Watson’s book is an excellent firsthand account of this important discovery.

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The Double Helix follows a sequential format through twenty-nine brief chapters that cover the period from 1951 to 1953. The primary location for the book is the distinguished Cavendish laboratory of the University of Cambridge, England. The book begins in the fall of 1951, when Watson, a twenty-three-year-old biologist who had just received his doctorate from the University of Indiana, arrived at the Cavendish laboratory, which was headed by Nobel laureate Sir Lawrence Bragg.

Watson originally was studying chemistry and bacterial viruses at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. By chance, however, he met Maurice Wilkins of the Cavendish laboratory at a conference in Naples, Italy. He became excited about Wilkins’ search for the structure of DNA, made a good impression on Wilkins, and soon obtained permission to begin study at Cambridge. There, he almost immediately encountered Francis Crick, a brilliant thirty-five-year-old English physicist who was conducting doctoral research concerning the three-dimensional structure of proteins.

Watson and Crick quickly became a close-knit thinking team. They began an attempt to describe the structure of DNA, the enormous molecule that determines virtually every aspect of every cell of every living organism on earth. They proposed a possible structure in late 1951, but the structure contained numerous flaws and was easily discredited by their colleagues. Furthermore, Bragg’s and Crick’s adviser, Max Perutz, forbade their further work on DNA.

Wilkins and his assistant, Rosalind Franklin, received priority in seeking the structure of DNA. Unfortunately, Franklin was very independent and uncooperative with Wilkins. She made several important X-ray photographs of DNA crystals, through a process called X-ray diffraction crystallography, to generate information concerning DNA’s three-dimensional structure. Yet her conflict with Wilkins prevented their discovery of the structure.

Shortly thereafter, the brilliant biochemist and Nobel laureate Linus Pauling of the California Institute of Technology proposed a possible three-dimensional structure for DNA that was incorrect. Consequently, Bragg released Watson and Crick to have a second go at the structure. Armed with Franklin’s X-ray photographs and Irwin Chargaff’s discovery that the nucleotide subunits of DNA orient in definite ratios, Watson and Crick produced a three-dimensional double-helical model of DNA in March, 1953, without having performed a single experiment. Because no errors could be found in their structure, they published a paper in an April, 1953, issue of the prestigious journal Nature, thereby laying claim to the discovery.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

The 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James D. Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for their contributions to the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the substance which is the source of genetic inheritance. The Double Helix (the title refers to the structure of the DNA molecule: a double helical chain) is Watson’s account, originally serialized in The Atlantic...

(The entire section contains 2845 words.)

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