It’s not “DNA day.” That’s in April–fittingly, the date of publication. Today is double helix day.
On this date in 1953, Watson and Crick solved the structure of DNA. What better day to lay to rest a few myths about it?
1) It sparked a scientific revolution.
The double helix caused a stir in the scientific fields closest to Watson and Crick’s work: X-ray crystallography and bacteriophage genetics. But it took several years for the structure and it’s most important implication–the copying of the genetic material–to be confirmed. True, Time Magazine sent a photographer to Cambridge to shoot for a possible feature. From it came Barrington Brown’s famous photo of the duo before a mock-up of the structure, with Crick brandishing of all things a slide rule at it and smirking at the silliness, and Watson gazing, baffled, up at his hero. But they pulled the story. The double helix didn’t become world-famous until after the Nobel Prize, in 1962. the revolution did come, then, but it reverberated from the fusillade of discoveries from molecular biology of the fifties and early sixties: the double helix, the Meselson-Stahl experiment, the operon, and, perhaps most importantly, the genetic code.
2. Watson stole Photograph 51.
The beautiful photograph of the diffraction pattern of b-form DNA taken by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling famously provided crucial evidence that enabled Watson and Crick to solve the structure. Watson obtained the image without Franklin’s knowledge. But the image was given by Gosling to Maurice Wilkins, who gave it to Watson. As correspondence recently published in The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix makes clear, the administrative relationship between Wilkins and Franklin was murky. Franklin reasonably assumed she was independent of Wilkins; yet he apparently was technically if not in practice her supervisor. Watson may well have exploited these ambiguities; he was intensely competitive for that time. But theft is such an ugly word.
3. Watson and Crick were racing against Linus Pauling.
Pauling seems to have been genuinely surprised to learn that he was racing for the double helix against the oddball duo from Cambridge. Watson probably felt a sense of competition with the great pioneer of structural chemistry, but it takes two to race. Watson thought he was racing against everyone, with the possible exception of Crick. The real competition was with the group at King’s College London–Wilkins and Franklin.
4. The Double Helix is a history of the double helix.
Watson’s best-selling book is a literary-historical memoir. It is an important source for historians, but it must be read with care. The book was shaped by personal goals, politics, and literary strategies as much as by historical events. It is naive to treat it as a literal account of what “really happened.”
In the past sixty years, DNA has become the foundation of biomedicine, an emblem of innateness, the most famous molecule in history. It promises more revolutions to come, in healthcare and in our sense of identity. Let us celebrate it by demystifying it. History, too, can be salutary.
Comfort, Nathaniel. “‘Novel Features of Considerable Interest’.” Science 339, no. 6120 (2013): 648-48. doi:10.1126/science.1233356.
Gingras, Yves. “Revisiting the “Quiet Debut” of the Double Helix: A Bibliometric and Methodological Note on the “Impact” of Scientific Publications.” J Hist Biol 43, no. 1 (2010 2010): 159-81.
Creager, Angela N. H., and G. J. Morgan. “After the Double Helix: Rosalind Franklin’s Research on Tobacco Mosaic Virus.” Isis 99, no. 2 (2008 2008): 239-72.
de Chadarevian, Soraya. “Portrait of a Discovery : Watson, Crick, and the Double Helix.” Isis 94 (2003 2003): 90-105.