The Double Helix by James D Watson – Book Review

Title: The Double Helix

Author: James D Watson

Genre/Themes: Science Non-Fiction, Memoir, Identifying the Structure of DNA

Blurb from Goodreads

By identifying the structure of DNA, the molecule of life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionised biochemistry and won themselves a Nobel Prize.

At the time, Watson was only 24, a young scientist hungry to make his mark.

His uncompromisingly honest account of the heady days of their thrilling sprint against other world-class researchers to solve one of science’s greatest mysteries gives a dazzlingly clear picture of a world of brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions & bitter rivalries.

With humility unspoiled by false modesty, Watson relates his & Crick’s desperate efforts to beat Linus Pauling to the Holy Grail of life sciences, the identification of the basic building block of life.

My Review

Do not view my low rating on this book as an indictment of the science. The story of the discovery of the structure of DNA is a fascinating one and makes for a compelling must-read book. The research behind it merited a Nobel Award…

But as any first year science student worth their salt can tell you it is a story mired in controversy.

I was enthralled by the continuous advancement of ideas that led to the double helical model that we all are familiar with today, but what is deeply unsettling about this account of those events is the almost casual misogyny that bleeds off practically every page that features Rosalind Franklin. I don’t think that one or two paragraphs in an epilogue, to attempt to paint her in a better light after defaming her character for the entirety of what has gone before it, can fully rectify the situation.

This book recounts the occurrences during the early 1950s from the viewpoint of James Watson so the question could be asked, does the time period and accepted societal viewpoints excuse his narration of the events?

This was a highly educated man. An intelligent man. Surely a man such as that should be held to higher standards and should have been a voice for equality and not one spreading misogynistic ideas?

If Franklin had lived it also would have highlighted the quandary over whether or not she would she have been awarded a Nobel prize too? Undoubtedly her work was a key component in determining the structure of DNA.

However, a Nobel Prize can only be awarded to a maximum of three people.

Who would have lost out?

Would perhaps the medical prize have been awarded to Watson and Crick and the chemistry prize to Franklin and Wilkins?

Sadly we will never know. Rosalind Franklin died from ovarian cancer before the awarding of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine which was jointly awarded to Francis Harry Compton Crick, James Dewey Watson and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”. (ref.

Has history been too kind to Rosalind Franklin and placed too much gravitas on her scientific work?

Do we vilify James Watson and triumph Franklin as some sort of wronged feminist icon?

Would Watson and Crick have determined DNA structure as quickly without access to Franklin’s research….

I know what I believe.

Five stars for the science

But one star for the blatant misogyny which I cannot condone.

NOTE: A prior knowledge of DNA structure and protein synthesis is best to enjoy this book and at the very least some basic understanding of the various principles of chemical bonding.

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