Form and Content

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

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.

Form and Content

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Monthly , of the efforts of the scientific community to solve the mystery of the DNA molecule. Although Watson supplies historical and personal background information, he concentrates on the period from the fall of 1951, when Watson, an American postdoctoral fellow, joined forces with...

(This entire section contains 632 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Crick, an English doctoral candidate, at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge, to April, 1953, when the two men published their theoretical model of the DNA molecule inNature. The book focuses on the personal and scientific interactions among five scientists: Watson, Crick, Linus Pauling, Wilkins, and Wilkins’ colleague—but not collaborator—Rosalind Franklin.

The book is aptly described by its subtitle. All the events are presented through Watson’s eyes as either a participant or an observer. He is the sole interpreter, whether it be of the significance of a scientific paper or the motives or feelings of those with whom he interacts. In part he relied upon his own memory, in part upon letters written to his parents on a weekly basis, which he used to help him date events. In the preface he acknowledges that some of the other participants had different memories of specific events, but that in the cases of conflicting memories he has depended upon his own recollections. He has tried to recapture his thoughts and reactions during the years between 1951 and 1953, without having his account colored or biased by historical hindsight. Even where subsequent events demonstrated that his judgments at the time were utterly wrong, Watson rejected the temptation to modify his narrative so as to appear more insightful than he actually was. He eschewed direct quotations or the re-creation of dialogue, instead utilizing indirect quotations or the summation of conversations.

Critics have had some problem fitting this book into its proper genre. Some have classified it as a scientific autobiography, although scientific autobiographies are characteristically written by scientists at the conclusion of their careers to provide overviews. Scientific autobiographies have also been typically dull recitations of events and discoveries, occasionally enlightened by the refighting of ancient priority disputes. Its candor, relatively narrow time frame, and extremely young protagonist prevent The Double Helix from fitting comfortably into this genre. Others have suggested that The Double Helix should be classified as a scientific memoir, pointing to its similarity with memoirs of nonscientists in its refusal to excise material by considerations of good taste and its inclusion of the gossip and trivialities of the subject’s life.

Watson writes for a general audience without assuming any prior knowledge on the part of the reader of the scientific issues involved or how scientific discovery takes place. He supplies sufficient information about the nature of genetics research and its history to place the discovery of Crick and Watson in context. The tone is informal, even chatty. Adding to the feeling of informality is the brevity of the chapters, each of which usually deals with one particular episode. The front matter, the twenty-nine chapters, and an epilogue total only 226 pages in the original edition, or fewer than ten pages per chapter. Chapters are generally arranged in chronological order, but some episodes are presented in flashback or as background. Supporting Watson’s text are a number of contemporary photographs of the protagonists, diagrams illustrating essential chemical, physical, or biological facts, and a foreword by Sir Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory at the time Watson and Crick made their discovery.

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

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.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SettingThe 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.

Tone 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.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

• 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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share, (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),’’ inScience 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,’’, http:/ /,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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Bernstein, Jeremy. “A Sorrow and a Pity: Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix,” in Experiencing Science, 1978.

Olby, Robert. The Path to the Double Helix, 1974.

Sayre, Anne. Rosalind Franklin and DNA, 1975.

Stent, Gunther S. “What They Are Saying About Honest Jim,” in The Quarterly Review of Biology. XLIII (June, 1968), pp. 179-184.

Yoxen, Edward. “Speaking Out About Competition: An Essay on The Double Helix as Popularisation,” in Expository Science: Forms and Functions of Popularisation, 1985. Edited by Terry Shinn and Richard Whitley.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide