The Double Helix

The Double Helix

by

James D. Watson

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The Double Helix Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James D. Watson's The Double Helix. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James D. Watson

James Watson was born and raised in Chicago, where he developed an early passion for birdwatching and ornithology. He began studying at the University of Chicago at just 15 years old and graduated with a degree in Zoology in 1947. He then took an interest in the growing field of genetics, and he went to pursue a PhD at Indiana University. He finished in 1950, then moved to Europe to begin his career as a researcher. The Double Helix covers the next three years: Watson began by researching bacteriophages in Copenhagen, then moved to the University of Cambridge, where he and Francis Crick famously used Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray data to discover the double helix structure of DNA. This discovery revolutionized molecular biology and is the foundation for all modern work in genetics. In 1956, Watson moved to Harvard University’s Department of Biology, and in 1962, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. Then, in 1968, he joined the prominent Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (or CSHL) as its research director. He stayed at the CSHL for three decades, helping it greatly expand and become a world leader in medical and genetic research. He briefly led the Human Genome Project from 1990-1992, but left after refusing to condone the National Institutes of Health’s plan to patent human genomes. He then returned to the CSHL. Ever since the mid-1990s, Watson has largely gained public attention for pushing the widely-disproven idea that Black people are less intelligent than white people because of genetic differences. He has also blamed genetic inferiority for women’s underrepresentation in science and argued that research is more effective without them. The scientific community has widely condemned his views. The CSHL fired him from his leadership position because of his racist comments in 2007, and then publicly denounced and cut all ties with him after he repeated these comments in 2019. In response to the public outcry over his beliefs, Watson complained of being treated as an “unperson” and denied opportunities. He also insisted that he is “not a racist in a conventional way.” He even became the first Nobel laureate to auction off his Nobel Prize in 2014.
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Historical Context of The Double Helix

Crick and Watson discovered the structure of DNA in the early 1950s, a time of profound scientific and political change. During World War II, scientific research started to play a greater role in public affairs than ever before. This process only accelerated during the Cold War, as the U.S. and Soviet Union began competing for scientific dominance—especially in physics, space, and weapons research. With the end of World War II suddenly freeing up significant state resources, governments in the U.S. and Europe also poured unprecedented funding into research of all kinds. Yet while science shaped both World War II and the Cold War, these events also deeply shaped scientists themselves. Many of the scientists who figure prominently in The Double Helix—including Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Max Delbrück—actually switched from physics to biology after World War II. In part, they were disillusioned to see physics put to such destructive uses during the war, and they hoped that biology could do more good than harm. Meanwhile, Cold War politics were also starting to seriously restrict academic freedom on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Watson notes how the U.S. government prevented renowned scholars like Salvador Luria and Linus Pauling from traveling to Europe for conferences because of their peace activism. While Crick and Watson were somewhat insulated from both of these trends at Cambridge, they clearly saw how science’s role in society was shifting in the early 1950s: it was growing more powerful, but also closer to the state. In particular, they also saw the great potential in genetics and molecular biology. While the monk Gregor Mendel laid the foundations for modern genetics in the 1860s, the field did not grow significantly until the early 1900s. By the 1940s, new results were revolutionizing the field almost every year. Many of these results—like Oswald Avery’s experiments on bacteria—were crucial to getting scientists like Watson and Crick to pay attention to DNA, which was first discovered in 1869 but largely ignored until the mid-1940s. In turn, Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix structure was by far the most significant finding in genetics in the 20th century. It not only revolutionized scientists’ understanding of heredity, but also allowed them to identify and study specific genes, which enabled innovations like gene sequencing.

Other Books Related to The Double Helix

Besides The Double Helix, James Watson’s best-known books are likely the textbooks Molecular Biology of the Gene, Molecular Biology of the Cell, and Recombinant DNA. (All have gone through several editions.) His memoir, Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science (2007), and his popular introduction to genetics, DNA: The Secret of Life (2003), are also widely read. In The Double Helix, Watson mentions two important books that he frequently consulted during his research: Linus Pauling’s The Nature of the Chemical Bond (1939) and J.N. Davidson’s The Biochemistry of Nucleic Acids (1950). Moreover, as Watson points out in his book, his collaborators are all prominent scientists with stories of their own. Most importantly, ever since Rosalind Franklin’s death in 1958, scholars have paid significant attention to her overlooked place in the search for DNA. The most significant book about Franklin is her close friend Anne Sayre’s Rosalind Franklin and DNA (1975), which was in part a response to Watson’s highly critical portrayal of Franklin in The Double Helix. Brenda Maddox has also written an influential biography of Franklin, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (2002). Francis Crick’s books include What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (1988) and Of Molecules and Men (2004), while Maurice Wilkins published an autobiography, The Third Man of the Double Helix (2003). Linus Pauling also published several books, but the science writer Thomas Hager has written the three most widely-read works about his life: Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling (1995), Linus Pauling and the Chemistry of Life (1998), and Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker (2001). Finally, the most detailed, authoritative history of Crick and Watson’s research is Robert Olby’s The Path to the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA (1994).
Key Facts about The Double Helix
  • Full Title: The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA
  • When Written: 1961-68
  • Where Written: Carradale, Scotland; Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
  • When Published: 1968
  • Literary Period: 20th-century scientific nonfiction
  • Genre: Memoir, Narrative Nonfiction, Popular Science
  • Setting: The Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, England; also London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Naples
  • Climax: James Watson and Francis Crick discover and build an accurate model of DNA as a double helix with complementary bases.
  • Point of View: First-person memoir

Extra Credit for The Double Helix

Researchers’ Responses. Many of Watson’s collaborators strongly objected to him publishing this book—including Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Sir Lawrence Bragg. Crick reportedly called the book “a violation of friendship” and “a contemptible pack of damned nonsense.” While Bragg eventually changed his mind and agreed to write the book’s introduction, these objections led Harvard University Press to drop it.