Form and Content

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...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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 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 in Nature. 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...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

Historical Context

Watson was teaching at Harvard University when he began to compile the notes, letters, scientific data, and photographs that would become the...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Literary Style

The Double Helix is set primarily in England in the early 1950s. As Watson notes in the preface, he wants his book...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Compare and Contrast

1950s: Animal scientist C. R. Henderson helps
New York dairy cattle breeders become world
leaders in applied genetics....

(The entire section is 206 words.)

Topics for Further Study

• Write an essay expressing your views on the
possibility of cloning human beings. Include fair
comments on the opposing...

(The entire section is 157 words.)

Media Adaptations

• An abridged edition of Watson and Crick’s discovery
of the structure of DNA is available on
audiocassette, read by Watson....

(The entire section is 42 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

• In his 1994 publication of The Astonishing
Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul
Francis Crick presents an...

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources, (November 20, 2000).

Bronowski, J., Review, in Nation, March 18,...

(The entire section is 305 words.)


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 79 words.)